Friday, January 08, 2010

Books: Whose woods are these I think I know.

When I was a college radio DJ - back in the prehistoric days when music came imprinted onto the surfaces of solid objects and "streaming" was an adjective used mostly in conjunction with urination - we had this goofy in joke that hinged on unnecessary intensification. It worked like this: Describe X by taking Y, which possesses trait T to a high degree, and claim that X is Y if Y had T to a high degree.

We were radio DJ's, not stand-up comedians.

We'd say stuff like, "That band's like Jesus Lizard, if Jesus Lizard was a noisy toxic spill of raging rockness" or "Sarah is like Amy, if Amy was a cold and unforgiving iceberg." (For the record, "cold and unforgiving" was the key to Amy's stupidly insane hotness; like so many sexual Shakletons looking to discover magnetic south, Amy's attractive pull to the dumber of the species was directly proportionate to how likely the effort to conquer was to end in your demise - but I digress.) It was an unnecessarily convoluted way to say how intensely Y possessed T. To put it in a horror blog context, we'd say, "August Underground is like the Guinea Pig series if the Guinea Pig series was a gory, f'ed up mess" or "That post is like a horror blog 'top' list posts if 'top' list posts were lazy, lame fan-service circle jerks." It was Bergsonian joke: The ha-has came from how inefficient a way to express yourself it was. Plus, there was humorous assumption of ignorance at work because you pretended not to really get X. It doesn't work in a blog so good.

Anywho, I bring this up because, at first glance, Richard Laymon's The Woods Are Dark seems to have been earnestly built on the premise of writing a Off Season if Off Season was violent and savage. The comparison between Laymon's book and Ketchum's book is unavoidable. Both feature vacationers in a fight against atavistic cannibal tribes. Both books foreground the idea of turning savage in order to survive. Curiously, both books even suffered similar fates at the hands of their editors: Off Season and The Woods Are Dark were famously butchered by their original publishers, only to be restored in complete texts decades later.

Despite these similarities, Laymon's book plays at a very different game. Though neither book is particularly realistic, Laymon's work becomes a grim and fantastic allegory about the relative sense of civilization and the "us versus them" mentality that may be one of humanity's most essential psychological tools. It ultimately shares more with Jackson's The Lottery and The Wicker Man than Ketchum's gore soaked thriller.

That Laymon's books is a curious world-building exercise is easy to overlook. World-building is often synonymous with purple prose excess and baggy exposition: Think of all the torturously bad poetry and unnecessary genealogical asides scattered about the works of Tolkien. Laymon's compact prose rockets the story along. His style is an odd sort of trick: He uses a hard-boiled minimalism to construct a bug's-eye view of a surprisingly large fantasy vision. Nowhere is this taut style better on display than the opening chapters of the book. Laymon wastes no time introducing our protags and throwing them into harm's way. The books opens with a splatter of surreality: Two friends, Neala and Sherri, on a driving holiday get a hand thrown at their car by a legless mutant on the roadside. Seriously. That's how the story starts. It's all done in a paragraph or two.

Neala and Sherri stop at a greasy spoon in Barlow, the next town they reach, and debate their responsibilities with regards to reporting hand-throwing mutant half-people. The debate quick tips in the realm of academic when the other patrons of the restaurant rise up and kidnap our heroines. They are trucked out remote location in the woods where they are joined by the three members plus guest of the Dill family, vacationers who were snatched from a Barlow motel.

The six captives are bound to a stand of much-abused trees and left there. It doesn't take long for the prisoners to realize their fate: They've been left as a sacrificial offering to the Krulls, a savage tribe of cannibals that have kept a grim and uneasy truce with the people of Barlow. The people of Barlow regularly drop off a handful of outsiders - the men and the old get eaten, the young women are kept for recreation and breeding purposes - and the Krulls don't prey on the folks of Barlow. What neither the prisoners nor their would-be slayers know is that, on this particular night, the nasty, but effective truce between Barlow and the Krulls is going to collapse. Instead of the regular sacrifice, and impulsive and dissatisfied young man from Barlow decides to buck the system and free the hostages/dinners. This act leads to a horrific two-day battle between the hostages and the Krulls.

The plot is familiar. If you've seen any horror film in the past three decades that contains characters who could be described as "hillbillies," then you know the drill. And, admittedly, there's a lot of factory standard stuff in here: We get all the highlights of the subgenre, from the body parts as fashion wardrobes to the ineffectual post-feminist era spineless intellectual who must suddenly become as vicious as his enemies to defeat them. Laymon occasionally pushes the elements further than most - Lander Dill, the transformed milquetoast, actually becomes a psycho looney who is far more dangerous to everybody around him than the Krulls are - but, for the most part, he hits these marks with an energy and enthusiasm that is effective if not original. (I hate to side with the forces of Big Publishing - those clueless mainstream editors who horror fandom is absolutely certain just don't get it - but much of the restoration work done on this novel centers on the Lander Dill plotline. In this case, Big Publishing was correct. Lander is the novelist weakest link. His transformation from wussy to dubiously sane killing machine seems insincere and so broad as to be comical. It is Laymon's only major misstep and whatever editor trimmed that subplot down is to be commended, not condemned.)

Where Laymon's truly unique contribution to the subgenre is comes in is his expansion of the worldview of the Krulls. Originally presented as wild beasts, Laymon turns a surreally nasty anthropologist's eye on his fictional tribe of regressives and fleshes them out to a degree similar stories never bother. Over the course of the novel, we comes to learn how the Krulls see themselves: A pure strain outlaw community that lives only by the primal laws of nature. We get their origin mythology, which is a bizarre cross between Genesis and the rugged individualist frontiersman tropes of our own civic religion. And, ultimately, come to understand that they view themselves as humans beset on all sides by enemies as concrete as the savage man creature that shares their wood (a odd, possibly supernatural man-bearish thing that they believe to be their Adamic ur-father turned demonic persecutor) and as abstract as the modernity they are fully aware of, but reject. This is not to say that the reader sympathizes with them. The Krulls' woods aren't even a nice place to visit. But Laymon shows that not only are they fully human, but even capable of sacrifices that, according to the own grim mores, are sincerely poignant. There are moments, brief transcendent shards of pure unadorned sympathy with raw humanity, that pierce though Laymon's depiction of the Krulls that remind me of John Smith's diaries of the Jamestown settlement or Jean De Lery's History of a Voyage to the Land of Brazil. That sense of an alien world that reveals itself to be, after all, recognizably human - but still fraught with the potential for danger and unspeakable horror - infuses Laymon's book at its best moments. It's the Krulls you miss when the bog is done. (And, personally, I'd love more about the citizens of Barlow. Laymon seems to forget them, even to the point of not considering what happens when the survivors tell their tale to the authorities. There's a massive search of the woods, so they do tell the police what happened. But wouldn't that mean that the citizens of Barlow are in deep doodoo? We never find out. Frustrating!)

I thank ANTSS regular Shon for giving me the opportunity to enjoy this book. It was a genuine pleasure.

6 comments:

Adam Blomquist said...

A great write-up of a great book. As big of a Ketchum fan as I am, I believe I like "Woods" more than "Off Season" for precisely the reasons you cite(although I do love the unpredictability and non-adherence to the "final girl" format of "Off Season").

It's amazing how with a bit of intelligence and depth even the most familiar of stories can be so enjoyable.

Sarah from Scare Sarah said...

Great post. I really loved this book too!

By the way, I gave you a new award you lucky thing, you.

Anonymous said...

Sounds interesting. I recently finished Ketchum's Off season (the restored version), which I found to be disappointingly weak and juvenile and one of the points you mention here- "big business" getting it right- also applies rather well in his case IMO (I'm thinking especially about the ending and the big change made there - according to Ketchum, he wanted a "Night of the living dead" kind of ending, but I think his editors were quite right in pointing out that his story and the themes contained in it simply didn't allow for that sort of ending).

CRwM said...

Sarah,

You like me! You really like me!

Thanks for the nod.

CRwM said...

Anony,

It raises the question of whether or not these author's are really well served by these restored editions. I've got to assume that, in these cases, there's enough fan demand to justify it. But was it artistically the right move? Hm.

In the era of DVD special features, however, I think we can assume this sort of thing is here to stay.

Anonymous said...

If you're right (and I agree with you), we might eventually reach a point where "unrated" editions of books become just as common as "Director's cuts" and unrated versions already are in the DVD market.
Should be interesting to see if this will have any impact on the writing process itself.