Saturday, January 1, 2011

Bentley Little and The Disappearance (2010)

Despite the fact that the most popular horror fiction writers have names which begin with the letter "K," such as King, Koontz, Ketchum, and Keene, for example, my favorite horror writers have names which begin with the letter "L," such as Lee, Laymon, and Bentley Little. And, despite my clever fucking observation, both classes of authors, "K" and "L," are talented writers whose work provides me with many an hour of entertainment. Now, with over two decades of reading horror fiction, if I had to pick a favorite author, then it would have to be Bentley Little. Why?
Bentley Little's 1989 debut novel, The Revelation, showed a strong influence from Stephen King (especially King's seminal and phenomenal 1975 novel, 'Salem's Lot); and would garner Little the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. The Revelation would also introduce Little's favorite antagonist: the "lurking horror," one which silently moves into an area, begins a path of pervasive evil, and then threatens to overwhelm and consume the populace. A band of good-hearted and courageous few inevitably confront the evil, determined to stop it at all costs.
Little's 1996 novel, The Store, would become not only his most representative work but also his best-loved by his readers. Tightly-plotted, swiftly-paced, biting satire and social criticism woven in between horrific prosaic imagery, The Store is signature Little. A concept intimately familiar to American readers, a large chain of retail stores, dubbed simply the Store (amusingly the Store pops up in many of Little's subsequent novels) announces the construction of a new store in a small town. Little takes his reader from concept to construction to completion of the Store with his reader; humorously yet also rendered quite creepily, the Store alters the entire culture of the town. The Store is almost perfect as either Swiftian satire or stand-alone horror. In either case, The Store is one of the best horror novels of its decade.
Little's brand of satirical horror has never let up. He would revisit the successful formula from The Store with different cultural targets: for example, home owners' associations in The Association (2001) and charter schools and public education in The Academy (2008). While neither is as quite a perfect storm as The Store, like all of Little's work, they are compellingly entertaining reads.
However, while Little has strong intellectual geneses for the premises of his work, his true creative talent lies in his rendition of the visceral. From the innocuous to the nonsensical, Little crafts superior horror prose. The creation of truly nightmarish imagery is a difficult task to accomplish; and at times, Little's creation of such seems totally organic. Little is superior to his contemporaries not only in his objective descriptions but he goes one step further: he takes the time to render the subjective feelings of fear and repulsion within his protagonists. For example in The Town (2000), Little creates some memorable sequences. Within the novel, an old banya rests in a field behind a house. While I cannot remember what this banya looked like, years later I can still remember how these characters reacted and felt when each gazed upon it. Each character felt the overwhelming sense of evil emanating from it, and Little with adept prose successfully channels these feelings into his reader. Little's epilogue for The Return (2002), an account of Zane Grey writing in his cabin in isolation in Arizona, is one of the most beautiful sequences that the author has ever written. It is also one of his creepiest. In fact, reading The Return is one of two times in recent memory that I can actually remember my heart beating fast during certain passages. The other time is from another author which I will save telling for another day.
Plot-driven fiction is the norm with today's commercial fiction. While Little has clearly demonstrated the ability to create intricate plots with multiple twists and turns with likable characters, my two favorite novels by Little have very simple premises. The Return is certainly one while the other is The Resort (2004). The Resort takes the simple premise of a family visiting an all-inclusive resort for a vacation. Not long after the family arrives, the shit hits the fan. The idea of a pleasure vacation takes a perverse and horrific turn, and the novel escalates in its depravity, its violence, and its scares. A perfect blend of signature Little horror, both from the innocuous to the nonsensical. In one sequence the mother from the family peeks out of her hotel room to witness the groundskeeper at work. The groundskeeper notices her gaze. He responds by doing a little dance. The dance isn't lewd; the groundskeeper doesn't turn into a werewolf; and the sky does not darken into a chasm. It's just a little dance, and it's an extremely creepy sequence. In a bout of furious reading, I had to finish The Resort as I couldn't, at times, believe what I was reading. I've since then read it many times as I have The Return.
Little's command of third-person, omniscient narration is evident by reading any of his work. Little has changed his style from time to time. His 2005 novel, Dispatch, shows his rare foray into the difficult first-person narration. Considering the limitations of the technique, Dispatch was a serious commercial risk for Little. I have no idea how successful it is amongst readers, and while it is not my favorite Little novel, Dispatch is admirable in both its conception and execution. The House (1997) employs an interesting design: alternating chapters, each focal on a specific character. All characters are tied to the titular house, and by the novel's climax all characters and events are tied together. The House, more than likely, will be remembered for containing perhaps Little's most perverted and transgressive imagery, however.
Bentley Little publishes a novel about once a year. The last novel of his that I read was The Academy back in 2008 shortly after its publication date. I haven't really flipped out over a Little novel since The Resort. I missed reading his 2009 novel, His Father's Son, although I do have it currently sitting at the side of my bed and am fairly certain I will read it soon-ish. I did, however, over the Christmas holidays finish reading his latest work, The Disappearance (2010). Here we go:
Gary and Joan are boyfriend and girlfriend. Along with their friends from UCLA (where all are attending), the group takes a trip into Nevada for the Burning Man festival: for one week out in the desert a makeshift community of artists and craftspeople meet and the event culminates with the burning of a large wooden effigy, a la The Wicker Man. This is a cultural event with which I am unfamiliar, but I get the jist. On page sixteen, Joan disappears. Here is an excerpt of Little's prose prior to Joan's disappearance:

Joan was no longer Joan. She was a button-eyed, life-sized rag doll lying unmoving amid the bloody bodies of his slaughtered friends. Two bansheelike shapes emerged from the fog enveloping the outskirts of the scene and picked up the huge doll. Her arms and legs flopped limply as the cloaked and hooded figures lifted her over Brian. His neck had been slit, and both his eyes and his mouth were wide open. Next to Brian, the bodies of Reyn and Stacy were little more than pulped meat.

Gary tried to scream, but only a tiny puff of air was expelled from his mouth. The air became visible, a round vibrating sphere. It darkened, lengthened, grew wings, then turned and attacked him, a chubby vampiric bat with sharp fangs and cold pinprick eyes. He tried to scream again, and the bat flew into his mouth, forcing its way down his throat, the rubbery winged body disgustingly tactile.

Though he was gagging and choking, he saw through teary eyes that Joan was no longer a rag doll but a little girl, and she was crying and struggling, trying to get away from her mysterious kidnappers. In the background, in the fog, the Burning Man was walking, its limbs, body and head ablaze as it moved in herky-jerky, stop-motion animation away from the carnage that was Black Rock City.

Then all was white.

Then all was black. (13-14)

Classic Little prose. Wonderful. I was flipping out and was not even through reading the exposition for The Disappearance.

The exposition for The Disappearance ends around, say, page twenty-four. I sensed with Little's efficient use of exposition and his initial imagery, this was going to be the work of a commercial writer at the peak of his talent. For the subsequent three hundred and seventy pages or so, it became painfully evident to me that this was not the case.
An interesting question, one which I cannot expound upon too much here, is to gauge the effect of our nation's current economy and climate upon the art that it is producing. Is there any correlation between people's fiscal conservatism and fearful nature towards any financial risk and the art which we are producing? I've noticed this considerably in commercial cinema of the last few years. While I've seen quite a bit of it, I rarely write about it. I much prefer to devote my time writing and celebrating the cinema where risk-taking is the norm. I've only noticed this recently with contemporary fiction. Are our artists sticking to tried-and-true, sellable formulas for success? I cannot answer this question with any certainty, but I do know that Little's The Disappearance is plodding, wholly conservative, and at times, very pedestrian.
I rarely read one book at a time; and when I took a break from The Disappearance and picked up another, truth be told, had its author not been Bentley Little, then I would have never finished it. Once Little begins his plot, there is too much time devoted to his characters engaged in tedious dialogue, and when they do act, it is always towards an unsatisfying goal: a long drive, a missed lead in the mystery, or some mundane task. No fear is generated at all (although a couple of early sequences are very good). To be fair, Little picked as the source for his antagonists a very touchy subject, one which most readers will have a strong opinion. Little doesn't side with any popular opinion, but his reticence to show his preference for any opinion doesn't come off as fair: it just appears as if he doesn't want to offend any of his readers. None of the intellectual ideas or social criticism, often ripe in Little's prose, is stimulating or interesting. I blazed through the final twenty pages, mostly skimming its predictable finale.
In conclusion, do not let The Disappearance be the first novel read by Bentley Little. I will never abandon this author, even if his next ten books are total shit. (This outcome is highly improbable.) However, if you think my opinion is full of shit, then please leave a comment below I always encourage, make up your mind for yourself and purchase The Disappearance and other Little work here. This link also serves for reference for the quote above and its parenthetical notation.

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