Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Return (A Review)

The man in the hip hop shorts was still alive, but he was screaming.

Ever read a book that's so damn lousy you wonder how it even got published in the first place?

Oh boy, where to begin?

Bentley Little is a pretty well-regarded author of horror whose novels tend to focus more on the psychological darkness underlying everyday life. What starts out as ordinary quickly takes on a sinister turn until the plot explodes into outright terror. I've read two other Little books: The Association, which features a tyrannical and deadly homeowner's association, and The Ignored, which satirizes the homogeneity of contemporary mainstream society. The former was all right, the latter I hated, and I've heard great things about The Burning and The Academy (click here and here). Those other two book bloggers I linked to seem very fond of Bentley Little (although Un-Mainstream Mom did give The Burning a D) but my overall opinion of him is basically "meh." The Return, however, inspires a stronger reaction.

The convoluted plot boils down to this: the extinction of the Anasazi Indians centuries ago was caused by an all-powerful demonic entity who drove them to destructive debauchery. And now – IT HAS RETURNED! *da-da da-dum dum dum . . .*

Actually, the prologue was very well-done and I enjoyed the part where the camp counselor tells the Boy Scouts about the legend of the "Mogollon Monster." But then the problems set in. First of all, the character Melanie finds an ancient piece of pottery at an archaeological dig with her face on it. At this point I'm wondering how she even knew it was her face. Anasazi painting isn't exactly realistic and Little never bothers to tell us what this alleged portrait of Melanie looks like. And if that wasn't bad enough, Little then just drops the whole thing and we don't hear about it again until several pages later, when Melanie says this:
"And then there's . . . my picture. It's creepy enough to find strange things buried in the ground for hundreds of years that don't make sense or can't be explained. But when one of them involves you personally, it . . . it . . . " she shook her head helplessly. "I don't know how to describe it. . . You wonder if it's just a coincidence or if it's like one of those old mummy movies and you're the reincarnation of some princess that the monster's going to come after."
Now later on, Melanie and Glenn will find an abandoned village in rural New Mexico that also contains an old church with stained glass windows depicting Glenn and a young boy (who turns out to be Cameron the Boy Scout) battling the Mogollon Monster (which has an orange fro and is said to resemble a crash test dummy). Um, yeah. First off: the reason Scream was considered such an original horror film was because it was also a metafictional satire. The characters all knew what was "supposed" to happen in a teen slasher flick (i.e. the virgin cannot be killed). And that underlines precisely why using postmodern references to pop culture to explain what's going on in a piece of horror fiction is a risky move. Your reader is going to start getting confused about the tone of your work. And it's even worse once you start adding clichéd horror plot devices like PROTAGONIST IMPLICATED IN ANCIENT PROPHECY! I mean, seriously, read this and tell me if it's meant to be funny or not:
Artifacts were moving across the floor. Hundreds of them. They were off tables, off shelves, out of boxes – masks, tomahawks, axes, arrowheads, pottery, carvings, toys, tools, sandals – and they inched along the smooth shiny floor in a uniform direction, toward the door, as if all were imbued with the same purpose. Kel and Mai, two of the museums' researchers, along with a volunteer grad student Arthur didn't know, were huddled behind the big oak desk in the right side of the room. The tide of creeping artifacts had not yet reached the desk, but once it did, the three young people would be cut off, unable to get to the door.
And that's not all. The Mogollon Monster is also an undead mummy with a magical skull! Specifically, one who rips someone's face off, leaves moving black mold everywhere, wipes entire towns off the face of the earth, creates wild weather patterns, transforms Anassazi ruins into extradimensional vortices, drives people into a homicidal and cannibalistic state, makes animals crazy, constructs a table and chairs out of old bones in a mass grave, transports Melanie's father into some hellish otherworld, appears in suburban bedrooms, and turns Cameron's parents into giant carrots. And just when you think Little has exhausted every horror convention available, lo and behold, here come the trailer-dwelling redneck grotesques straight out of Deliverance! It's kind of like that Anne Frank-meets-Dragon Ball Z fanfic a geeky friend of mine found on LiveJournal: so ludicrously over-the-top (and poorly written) that you can't tell if you're supposed to take it seriously or if it's supposed to be a "crackfic."

I think Little should have taken Shirley Jackson's advice to an aspiring writer, in which she stated that your readers may be willing to accept, for the purposes of your story, that the Land of Oz exists, but not that they can see it from their kitchen window. In other words, people are happy to suspend their disbelief in order to engage with a work of speculative fiction, yet there is only so far a writer can stretch that willingness before it snaps. I think the problem here is that Little usually does not rely on the supernatural to carry his plots so I'm not sure he quite knew what he was doing.

I'm not saying that there's anything inherently wrong with having a very strong supernatural element in your story. Dan Simmons's Summer of Night also centers on primordial evil and features some rather over-the-top and potentially silly creatures, including giant lampreys and maggot-spewing zombies. But the horror aspect is nevertheless balanced out by very strong characterization and a beautifully nostalgic recreation of small-town boyhood in the early '60s. It is a tale not only of monsters and a haunted schoolhouse, but of growing up and the loss of innocence. In The Return, on the other hand, there is absolutely no character development whatsoever. Even young Cameron's reaction to the terrifying events that destroyed his family, friends, and entire state is jarringly flat. But then again, everyone was virtually indistinguishable to begin with. There is nothing memorable about any of these people and as a result, I just didn't care about them. Keanu Reeves and Carrie-Ann Moss in the Matrix films had more chemistry than Glenn and Melanie.

It really is unfortunate because, in the end, this really could have been a great horror novel. Bentley Little introduced a lot of great material that he could have built on but didn't.
"History is written by the victors. . . That's why we're always told American history through a British-centric lens. It always starts in the East and moves West. But the truth is that America was settled here [the Southwest] first. There was a governor's mansion and a sitting Spanish governor in the civilized city of Santa Fe when the Pilgrims sat down to their primitive first Thanksgiving. But that doesn't fit into the myth. We're supposed to think the brave colonists tamed a savage land occupied only by a handful of nomadic natives and that after they fought for their independence and set up a stable democracy, they moved inland and settled the Wild West. We're not supposed to realize that there was already a cultured European civilization here."
There is a sadly undeveloped theme running through The Return of hidden history and how events of the past, no matter how forgotten, inevitably affect the present and may even come back to haunt the living. Little, speaking here through Melanie, is absolutely right: most Americans are completely unaware of the history of the Southwest and end up bewildered when Mexicans and Hispanic Americans protest. (New Mexico even has its own Spanish dialect.) Problem is, Little submerges the whole thing in supernatural bombast.

So obviously, this book sucks. Oh, but that's not the worst part. One gets a sense of genuine déjà vu reading this.

Mysteriously abandoned towns? Check. Crazy professor with crazy theory explaining the mass disappearance of entire populations? Check. A omnipotent shape-shifting creature of pure evil who has inspired human legends? Check. That inspires dark worship? Check. That is finally defeated through a surprisingly simple method? Check.

And it was Dean Koontz who discovered Bentley Little. Wow, nice way to repay the guy. But Phantoms is far superior and remains to this day one of my favorite books.


Mo from Unmainstream Mom Reads said...

I love your review! I definitely think Bentley Little books are hit or miss, with nothing in between, and this one sounds like a major miss. I checked, and it's not even on my TBR list, most likely because it got horrible reviews on Amazon so I decided to skip just checked and it has an average of 2.5 stars, which is really bad.

Although, I do like the idea of faces getting ripped off, homicidal cannibals, people getting turned into giant carrots, and Deliverance-inspired trailer trash! It's too bad Little was so all-over-the-place. The Burning was like that too.

I've read Dean Koontz's Phantoms, and really liked it...the movie? Not so much. I'm definitely adding Summer of Night to my TBR list.

On a side note, I'm strongly considering quitting Dean Koontz books. He's getting pretty awful with the five dollar words and flowery, lyrical, overly-descriptive metaphors, and it's driving me batty. First it was the whole dogs-will-save-the-world thing, and now this. It's getting hard for me to get through his books. Forever Odd was bad, and Your Heart Belongs to Me was worse. I actually abandoned it yesterday!

Anyway, thanks for all the great links. I think this review is my favorite of all you've published lately :)

E. L. Fay said...

Hey thanks! I was actually just reading the Amazon reviews of The Return and even some of the people who gave it good ratings also admitted it was kinda bad (they basically just liked it because it was so damn wacky). One said it was "just a glorious, fantastic train wreck."

I agree with you about Dean Koontz lately. I've actually written a whole post about how preachy and sentimental he's gotten. (I talked about two of his recent books, The Taking, which was okay, and From the Corner of His Eye, which was just awful.) But I did enjoy Seize the Night and The Face, which actually featured an amoral character! Dean, I had no idea you were capable of writing about people who weren't either really good or really bad!

Summer of Night is an excellent horror novel. If you like it, you may also want to check out another Simmons book, a sci-fi novel called Hyperion, which is just breathtaking.

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