Monday, November 27, 2006

Book: House of thieves?

Even the most cursory summary of Stephan Graham Jones’s newest novel, Demon Theory, begs the comparison, so let’s just get it out of the way. The links between Demon Theory and the experimental landmark horror novel House of Leaves are both obvious and only superficial. Both revolve around the retelling of fictional films, both play with narrative conventions in an overtly postmodern way, and both books are laced with pop cultural and academic references in the form of asides and footnotes. I bring this up because, upon reading the jacket cover summary, I think anybody who has read House of Leaves (which Jones acknowledges as an influence in the back of the book) is immediately going into the book with preconceived notions about what they’re getting into. And, unfairly, this works against Jones’s novel. Despite the similarities, Demon Theory is very different beast.

Demon Theory, the novel, is written as a collection of three “film treatments,” the larval stage of a screenplay. It presents the story of a trilogy of horror movies surrounding a cursed family and a horde of bat-like demonic entities. The first film, a pseudo-slasher flick, takes place in an isolated country house during Halloween night. A young medical student, who needs to bring insulin to his mentally disorganized diabetic mother, convinces his friends to join him on his errand. As such errands seem to do, this one goes horribly wrong and the gang ends up trapped in the house and facing down a masked killer with dark connections to the family’s past. The sequel involves a series of possessions in a local hospital. Several of the original cast (some of whom actually didn’t make it out of the first flick) race against time in order to stop a full-on demonic invasion. The third, and strangest of the three films, follows our cast back to the old country house of the first film. Again, strangely, several of the characters are inexplicably back to help face down the secrets of the old house and end their demonic troubles forever.

Jones rolls through these three sections like a big freakin’ truck. His plots don’t advance so much as they montage forward in leaps and bounds. The gore is there, but, mainly due to the treatment-style language he employs, it is merely stated and moved over. Jones doesn’t leave himself time to linger over the details of the carnage. His characters start as the stock characters familiar to fans of the slasher genre, but ultimately gain an uncanny, but very uneven, depth as they must confront the rising levels of surreality in their lives, becomes less stereotypical as Jones’s plot becomes more atypical.

Unlike the chopped-up, concrete-poetry style of House of Leaves, Demon Theory is written in a clipped, propulsive, minimalist “filmese.” The language is spare, littered with film production jargon (POV, f.g.), and vigorous. It drives the action along, dragging the reader somewhat breathlessly through scenes. The idea, one assumes, is that, in a film treatment, where the writer doesn’t have control over the visuals anyway, one favors plotting and dialogue. Here, instead of describing an action, setting, or detail, Jones might just drop a film reference in its place. For example, when describing a demon nesting site, Jones evokes the queen alien’s lair for the Aliens franchise and pretty much leaves it at that. This is probably the biggest make or break point in the book. Readers will either adapt to the distinct rhythms and limitations of this approach, rolling along with the book’s often breakneck pacing, or they’ll find the writing thin, clunky, and lazy. You’ll either find it a “literate film treatment” or a “film treatment-like novel.” I suspect that those with the former point of view will feel the book is a greater success than those who adopt the latter. Personally, I alternated between the two extremes. Often, especially during the action scenes, found myself tearing along with the book. Though, in other places, it becomes a bother that you don’t really know what the characters or setting look like.

This occasional frustration with Jones style was sometimes amplified when Jones would congratulate himself on a particular image or detail, actually inserting self-praise like “nice effect” into the prose after one of his few descriptive passages. It is never clear if this grating effect is meant to be taken on some meta- level. Perhaps, were meant to think that this is not how Jones writes, but how a Jones who was selling film treatments to Hollywood would write. Either way, in the end, it doesn’t matter. Whether intentionally or unintentionally grating, either you can go along with it or you can’t, questions of intentionality won’t save it or damn it. In fact, the question of just which Jones – the near hack or the clever postmodernist imitating a near hack – is paradigmatic of the whole book. Sometimes the plot comes off as a bit hokey, but is that because his plot is hokey or because the plots of so many of the films he’s paying homage to are a bit hokey. The strained dialogue: awkward writing or expertly imitated awkward writing? One could take the occasionally pointless footnotes as either the work of a Hollywood treatment writer trying to show he’s made an important work or as Jones trying to make light fun of the post-David Foster Wallace hip-lit crowds love of foot- and endnotes.

The real question is: Does it matter? If you have to read awkward and unrealistic dialogue (and it is awkward precisely because it is so polished and “crisp,” to use the Hollywood term – Jones’s characters talk in the overly allusive jabber of Kevin Williamson characters) for some three hundred pages, does it make a difference if you’re in on the joke?

If the answer is yes, then Demon Theory is written for you. Its curious plot and knowing genre mischief make for light, but witty entertainment. If your answer is no and you enjoy your horror with more straight-up kicks than po-mo tricks, I suggest looking elsewhere.

Demon Theory was published last April by MacAdam/Cage and will cost you 24 smackers, US, in hardback. I don’t believe it is available in paperback yet.


Anonymous said...

I've never found film-speak novels very interesting. The POV/pan/foreground etc (stage directions, or whatever you want to call camera angles etc) all tend to distract and take away from the actual story.

Now, if it's actors and scripts and directors, great, but I don't want their copy.

Anonymous said...

I've never heard of HOUSE OF LEAVES.
And based on your review and description, I'm not quite sure what to make of this book.
WORLD WAR Z sounded like a film treatment as novel, except all in character voice. This sounds like the whole thing's scripted, plus footnotes, is that right? I guess I'm just puzzled by that choice. The WORLD WAR Z concept makes sense if you're strength is not prose description.
But this... I wonder if Jones had an idea for a movie trilogy and this was the best way he could think of to scratch that itch.
Or else i'm not getting the concept of what's actually going on in this book.
Maybe these are actual movie treatments that he couldn't interest anyone in Hollywood with, and decided to push (or actually, perhaps, add)it's post-modern aspects (the footnotes, etc.) as a way to still sell the idea but this time as modern literature.
I guess I'm hung up on this concept.
The format seems such a strange choice, that I feel like I'm not getting something here.
I'll have to take a peek at it in a bookstore just to see what it's like.
Don't mind me... I'm easily confused.

CRwM said...

Back to Sasquatchan:

In this case, sometimes it worked and sometimes it didn’t. As I mentioned, it seems better suited for action scenes where the quick rush of bare details helped give the impression of speed. However, whenever characters weren’t running away from demons or whatever, the trick was distracting. And, in my opinion, distracting without sufficient justification. If you’re a writer and you’re going to pull a stunt simply for the stunt’s sake, it better be so cool that it makes the distraction a welcome one.

CRwM said...

Back to cattle:

I think I failed to give the impression of exactly how the prose comes across (maybe I’m using the term “treatment” incorrectly – though, if this is the case, then so does the novel itself). It isn’t really written as a script, more as a prose description of what should happen in the flick. Since I don’t have the book here, I can’t quote you any, but I can recreate it. Here’s CRwM at work, DT style:

“Int. on a small, windowless office. Through the frame of the door is CRWM. Shot of just his hands typing. Close up of screen. He’s writing a response to a comment on his blog. Ext. CU of the word ‘treatment’ being keyed onto the screen. The letters materialize, black on a white background, one by one and the sound of his typing is magnified with each letter, becoming thunderclaps. Nice effect.”

That’s how it goes. Not really a script, but some prelim stage of one.

I can’t say exactly why Jones chose to write in that particular style. I suspect it was meant to suggest something about the mediation of our experiences through mass culture (on a handful of occasions characters criticize each other for viewing the world solely through the lens of the films they’ve watched – an accusation that would cut deeper if the characters were not, in fact, living out a series of horror films). I trust him, though, when he says it was written to be a novel and was not simply the bound version of a failed movie pitch. There’s precedent for the approach in modernist (H.G. Wells did it as early as 1929) and post-modern literature. Jones even cites many of the most famous examples in his acknowledgments.

Anonymous said...

Your example is so strange. Especially the final, "Nice effect".
I'll have to dig this up just to look at it and be puzzled with it in my hands.
Thanks (seriously) for trying to demonstrate what the book's like. It helps me imagine it better.

CRwM said...


If you'd like, I'd be happy to send you the copy I read. I got it for free and I'm done with it. Just send me an address and I'll pop it in the mail.

Anonymous said...

What? That-- that's so cool!
Um, you got an e-mail or something I can send my address to (he said, attempting some sort of privacy)?
Here's my e-mail:

Actually, this sort of "works out" because I was thinking of sending YOU something at some point, if you didn't mind, so this sort of puts a foot up my butt to act on it.
Actually, to you and a couple other people, like Mermaid Heather, as well.
I helped out on a very low budget horror movie and I was thinking of sending a few copies out to see what reaction it got. The producers are still trying to find a distributor for it, so you can't really rent it or anything like that yet. But perhaps next year...
Send me your e-mail and I'll pester you more in private.
But, anyways, thanks for this generous offer, ya mug!

And finally:
T A G.

(check my latest lj post for details)