Saturday, November 11, 2006

Book: Dreaming my life away.


The blurbs on book jackets are almost universally a load of crap. Like some currency with an exchange rate that sucks like a black hole, these plugs are exchanged between authors, agents, and publishers as the smallest denomination of favor, but the value for those wishing to translate them into something useable outside that small circle is virtually nil. Funny thing about this is that I know all this (and now you do too, if you didn't before) and, yet, I can still be dragged into purchasing a book on the basis of blurbs. Though I know on some objective level this is somewhat like thinking you're making out in a deal where you knowingly exchange a fiver for a twenty so poorly counterfeited that it will fool no one, I can't help but be intrigued when the right combo of authors appears on a book, singing the books praises in the generic and shopworn terms otherwise talented wordsmiths dust off for these things. And that's what usually gets me: not what the blurbing authors say, but the combo of authors who have thrown in their semi-compulsorily two cents. Did the publisher go for the shock and awe approach, assembling a sort of Justice League of genre all-stars to overwhelm the consumer? Sometimes authors find a single, famous voice to bestow its blessing on the book. This gives the enterprise an air of ceremony: the legend is passing on the torch. My favorite strategy, or at least the one that makes me actually pay attention and money, involves finding an unusual mix of folks. This suggests that work is complex, appeals to multiple groups, has a little something for everybody.

This is the strategy behind the blurbs on Sarah Langan's debut horror novel The Keeper. The front cover of the mass market paperback from Harper Torch ($6.99) sports a blurb from genre-stalwart Peter Straub, letting horror novel regulars know the new girl's bona fides check out. Meanwhile, on the back, we get indie publishing icon and McSweeney art crowd approved Kelly Link, letting the hipper-than-thou crowd know that it will be okay to be seen with this book even though it isn't a $16 trade paper back and tends to be (gulp) earnest in its efforts to entertain and scare.

In this case, I'm glad I was a sucker. Langan's debut delivers the goods.

The Keeper centers on the town of Bedford, Maine. Bedford has seen better days. The paper mills that once provided the town with a steady source of revenue have shut down. People are out of work. The town is decaying under the weight of this economic draught. To make matters worse, the abandoned mills are toxic disasters, poisoning the forests surrounding Bedford. Facing the slow disintegration of their homes, the residents of Bedford are all feeling the strain of living in a town with no future. The kids dream of escape or simply don't think about the future at all. The adults drink, feud, and pretend their world isn't dying. The misery seems to even taint the weather: Bedford's seasonal rains, which settle in like a Biblical judgment, last for weeks.

To make things worse, the town is host to a frightening and spectral girl whom many believe is a witch. The mute Susan Marley, haunted and insane, stalks through the streets of the town. She's watching and waiting. The town's residents avoid her during the day (exceptin' those men who use the disturbed Susan as an easy lay) only to find that, at night, she finds them in their dreams. These dreams get worse as the flooding rains come and seal the town off from the outside world. The town's slumber becomes increasingly disturbed by nightmarish and apocalyptic visions that warn of a doom coming to Bedford, something even the strongest of them will be powerless to stop. And, when Susan dies in a bizarre accident, the horrible meaning of these dreams becomes clear.

Langan's debut is a genuinely involving portrait of decaying small town America that, even when the supernatural spookshow begins, never loses it emotional realism: depicting with psychological astuteness the fear, guilt, and horror of a way of life in decline. The broad canvas of Langan's sprawling book allows her to sketch vivid portraits of Bedford's residents. We see Susan's mother and sister, paralyzed by the past they share with their otherworldly family member. The inner lives of teens, single mothers, drunks, cops, eccentrics, and everyday working folks are all sketched with careful attention. And the horrors, when they begin to pile on in earnest, come with the dreamlike concreteness of a particularly grim surrealist canvass.

Though her New England setting is well-trodden ground, Langan's novel looks further back than fellow Northeastern horror novelists Lovecraft and King. Instead, Langan taps a deeper source of American horror. She evokes the ancient specters of blood-guilt, the fear of being accursed in a way so primal that your own actions are irrelevant. This is mainstream horror as Nathaniel Hawthorne would have delivered it, though Langan takes that author's witch-haunted New England and injects into its landscape a distinctly modern horror aesthetics.

Langan's fine eye for characterizations sometimes gets the better of her, leading to initial chapters that sometimes seem directionless, fussy, or overly detailed – including at least one incident involving a major scare that is never sufficiently explained in anything that follows. However, when it is time to kick the story into high-gear, Langan's prose becomes focused, taut, precise, and vicious, showing that the earlier meandering was an aesthetic mistake, and not the product of any limitation on the writer's part.

Langan's
web site informs me that her next novel with take place in the same Bedford setting as The Keeper. I, for one, am looking forward to revisiting those haunted, poisoned forests.

For a taste of Langan's prose, you can check out the handful of short stories posted on her site.

8 comments:

cattleworks said...

Hmmm...
Knowing how long it takes me to do anything, especially read COMICS and watch MOVIES (which is really pathetic from the simple comparison of time investment required for those two activities vs. reading a whole book! I suck.),
this book sounds pretty cool, but i'll probably never get around to reading it.
The whole character study of a town sounds great, especially with the weird mute character of Susan Marley.

And your whole intro was a total misdirection! Here I'm expecting to read: "...and thus, that's how I was duped into reading this mediocre, scareless, bla bla bla..." But that wasn't the case.

I guess the intro was an additional word of warning to us easily snookered book consumers? Although, it can't be all mere favors and handwashing... isn't there some sort of risk that a name author is taking if he's overly generous as a favor?
Anyways, I know I personally read Thomas Harris' RED DRAGON years ago when it came out in paperback based on the Stephen King quote. In fact, Stephen King's "I have seen the future of horror and it is Clive Barker..." pushed me to pick up the first Books of Blood.
But, I know you have a sort of insider's perspective there.

Personally, I like the direct-to-video approach of just putting ANYTHING in quotes but not attributing it to anybody. As stupid and transparent as that sounds, it still hooks me. Although, then I rate the copy between the quotes for its sheer chutzpah:
"Better than Hitchcock!" claims no one!
"Frame for frame, this amazing film has more entertainment value than any common moviegoer has any right to be exposed to!" says our copywriter who hasn't actually seen the film!
Etc., etc.
But as I said, those quotation marks are ridiculously powerful. If I ever produce a comic or movie, I'm whipping out the unattributed quote like nobody's business!

sasquatchan said...

For a non-horror story with what sounds like very similar plot like lines, read Empire Falls, I forget the author, but as a somewhat Maine expat (well, summer-er there, so the locals would hate me), I appreciate small-town Maine fiction.

CRwM said...

Cattle:

In this case, the blurbs worked in my favor – though I've been screwed by blurbs on more than one occasion. I've read too many mediocre pseudo-hardboiled crime novels to trust Elmore Leonard's blurbs anymore. I also remember getting hyped about the lame-o Hannibal (so much worse than Red Dragon or Silence, where did Harris's talent go?) on the basis of an article-length love letter/review from King in the New Yorker.

Sassy:

I've never read Empire Falls, though folks have often recommended it to me. Perhaps I need to give it a look.

cattleworks said...

I'll be honest. I liked HANNIBAL. Of course, I read books so rarely, maybe that has something to do with it.
Perhaps because the plotting was so grotesque... perhaps part of me was saying, "Man, Harris is really trying to stick it to Hollywood!" which sort of amused me.
Although, the ultimate development between Lecter and Clarice Starling may have been a stretch.

Shortly after reading that book, I think Lecter was like this weird hero for me, in the sense that he's so talented (intelligent and capable) and CONFIDENT, which is an issue for me.
Okay, that lack of a moral compass IS unfortunate, but really, aside from that...

CRwM said...

I had a couple issues with Hannibal. The main bad guy seemed more like a James Bond villain or Marvel's the Red Skull than a character from the Red Dragon/Silence world. I agree that Clarice's transformation to cannibal housewife is a stretch. And I was also sad to see the interesting character besides Hannibal, the Italian cop, dies less than half way through the book. (Though I can't fault an author for offing a character he knows the audience likes – it is a hell of a trick and most writers don't have the guts to do it.)

My main issue though is that I knew what book I wanted, and though Harris can't be blamed for not reading my mind, I'm going to be irrationally disappointed anyway. I wanted a sort of wrap up epic battle. With Hannibal on the loose, Starling would have to tap the dude who caught him in the first place: Graham from Red Dragon. Then we would have got a sort of resolution to the trilogy (since apparently the next one is a prequel anyway, so the first story arc seems done).

cattleworks said...

What the--!?
WHAT Prequel?
Is this a movie or another Harris book?

Meanwhile, I think I prefer William Peterson for my cinema version of Graham. Nothing against Edward Norton at all, but if I had to make a choice, I go with Peterson, bow-legged or not.
But then, that would really complicate movie continuity wouldn't it?
It would be like we're in a world that also casts ROSEANNE (in case that makes no sense, on the sit-com, one of Roseanne's daughters was played by two actresses. After a number of seasons, the first actress bowed out so they replaced her. I don't know how long the second actress assumed the reins, but then SHE left... and the FIRST one resumed the role! Oy!)
So, in a way, there is some mix and match precedent casting-wise...

Meanwhile, you're basic premise for the third book sounds pretty cool.
I can understand your disappointment.

CRwM said...

My super secret magical sources within the book biz tell me that the next Harris book (which is very hush-hush - like the new Pynchon book, which just showed up in stores today) is a prequel building off the flashback segments in Hannibal.

I kid thee not.

For the record, I dug the Manhunter version better as well. I kind of wish Norton could somehow be put into Mann's film (the same way I wish we could use digital tech to put Bela in the Spanish shoot of Dracula), but that's the way it goes.

I know this is perhaps suicidal advice, but I think Harris needs to but down the franchise for a moment. For just one book. He could write something else. I have this dream book for Harris: a fictionalized account of what happened inside the apartment during the Speck mass murder. Tell me that wouldn't be intense beyond belief.

cattleworks said...

Wow!
Okay, point by point...

-When you say "magical" sources in the book biz, do you mean because you can smooch with these sources?

-Actually, I may have misled you: I think I like Peterson's Graham more, but not necessarily MANHUNTER more. I saw MANHUNTER when it first came out, and I was already in love with the book (ok, you know how THIS always turns out)-- movie adaptations of books you love always suck, even if they're a great adaptation. At least on first viewing.
That's my personal rule of thumb.
I thought the whole translation to video cameras was great (the book was all super 8 movies) and i thought the first video image we saw, walking into the dark house, into the parents' bedroom and one of them waking up-- fade out-- was really great and creepy.
I thought the book's detail of Dolarhyde covering his hair lip with his hand when the lights come on in the dark room and he meets Reba for the first time was terrific, otherwise why have her be blind? Why have them develop a relationship? I missed that in RED DRAGON.
The ending didn't do much for me, although I thought it funny that they changed the book's ending because i thought that was such a cinematic ending. In the book, I thought it was alright, but i thought it would be perfect for a movie. So, I found that ironic.
I thought screenwriter Ted Tally improved on the book's ending with the RED DRAGON ending.
I think I just find Peterson more charismatic than Norton in the role.
But I haven't seen MANHUNTER in 20 years (cripes!) so, I should re-evaluate.

-But the whole idea of digital mix and match is cool, and I totally get your DRACULA example.

-The Speck suggestion IS interesting. Perhaps I don't know enough about the specifics, but I don't think harris would get into that. Psychologically, i don't know how interesting that is.
It DOES sound like a great Italian exploitation idea, though.
But, again, all i know is Speck killed these nurses in a dormitory, apartment house?
Wait, was this the one where a woman's being murdered and everyone in hearing ignored her, didn't want to get involved?
But a different subject than Hannibal Lecter would be great.
Hell, he did okay with BLACK SUNDAY...