Posted on September 8, 2009 by Flames
I’ve not been privy to the works of Brian Keene before this past week, nor had I ever even heard of him. I’ve got plenty of reasons as to why Brian has flown under my radar, ranging from my recent urban fantasy kick (I’ve been on a mission to complete The Dresden Files and The Mercy Thompson series lately), making an earnest attempt at reading more of the books my friends ask me to read (recently wrapped up The Lovely Bones to discuss with a gal-pal of mine), to boning up on my ghost hunting & ghost story lore to finish up some of my freelance work for Palladium Books. For these reasons and others I’ve not read a horror novel in what feels like way too long.
But the other week I was hanging out with a buddy who had a copy of Urban Gothic chilling atop a box of books he calls his “finished and ready to trade in” box. Curiosity got to me and I glanced it over, catching various notes of praise like “Brian Keene is the next Stephan King”, “Post-apocalyptic… blunt and visceral” and “One of horror’s most impressive new literary talents.” Between these praises and my buddy’s enjoyment of the book I decided to borrow it and give both Urban Gothic and Brian Keene a go.
Beware: Some spoilers will crop up for the next few paragraphs.
I’d say welcome to Camden, New Jersey… but that would make me a liar; you’re not welcome there. For Camden is the very definition of the term “urban blight”. It’s a bad neighborhood with no real hope of a recovery or much of a future. And its here where our six suburban protagonists end up; for the teen in the drivers seat of their ride is looking to score some pot after enjoying a concert together and therefore forces the others to come along for the ride.
As Murphy had once predicted that whatever can go wrong will, the groups ride craps out in the worst part of town. Our unfortunate teens are standing around to bear witness of a fruitless attempt to get the car running again when they spot a group of teens on the corner whom they immediately assume the worse of (they look like racially profiled gang bangers to the suburban youths). A misunderstood conversation between the two groups goes bad and the suburbanite teens scram. They spot what looks like an old abandoned Victorian house down the street and in a panic decide it’s a great place to hide from the “gangsters”.
At first glance it would seem they might be correct, for the kids in the hood give up the chase on once they realize where they’re going. But in reality it’s out of the frying pan and into the fire as there are dangers lurking in that house, and they are far worse than anything the teens might deal with on the streets. A maze like house full of death traps, savage and horrific mutant cannibals and an underground kingdom of horror all become part and partial of the terror these kids are put through in a hurry.
NOTE: End of the spoilers for those who’d like to know. Fans of horror will recognize all sorts of tropes quickly in Urban Gothic. Movies like The Hills have Eyes, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Wrong Turn and even The People under the Stairs will come to mind. Urban Gothic shifts into high gear immediately and never lets up until the end. The death and gore come in fast and furious as well; in fact the first of many deaths to come takes place in chapter one.
This is not a book for the timid or the squeamish. This is a hard boiled slasher novel that was tailor made to be one hell of a ride. To Brian’s credit, this book might have buckled under its own weight quickly had it been handled by less capable hands. Some may argue that the book races too quickly as people are dying before you get the chance to know them much less care about the fact that they’re dying. This is a valid critique, but for those who go along with the endurance challenge our teens are put through during their fight for survival, you’ll be rewarded for it.
Brian cleverly wiggles in details about the characters throughout the story to where you subtly begin to get an idea of who these kids are and why they should matter. His quiet efforts of adding body to his character’s while he turns up the heat succeeds and you’ll begin to feel for them and hope they’ll escape what seems to be an inevitable appointment with their angel of death in the most gruesome of ways.
Brian also adds an interesting side plot you wouldn’t expect to find in this kind of novel. Remember the kids in the hood I told y’all about earlier? Well it’s not the last you’ll hear from them. Throughout the book you’ll get moments where the hoodies chat with a local neighbor, whom go into various thoughts and laments about the suburb kids misplaced racial stereotyping that got them into trouble in the first place, the hoods forgotten sense of history and dead sense of pride their hood is afflicted with, and even showing concern for the unfortunate six as they all know something is wrong with that house and never go near it. It’s a subplot that’s interesting and unique and I wish more was about them had been added in.
Mucho gore, mucho tension, mucho shocking, mucho horror… mucho vitamins here to keep a horror buff healthy and happy. To some peeps it will seem shallow and lacking of character development, but from my point of view that may have been Brian’s intention. He set out to make a fast paced book of terror and at only 301 pages he achieves his goal with flying gore and colors! Urban Gothic also includes an early look at Brian Keene’s next novel Darkness on the Edge of Town, due out in early 2010.
As much as I enjoyed my first outing with Brian Keene’s festering yet fertile imagination, I’ve already purchased one of his previous novels Dark Hollow. Sigh…now to find the time to squeeze this book in between all the Dresden Files I still need to catch up on.
Review by Steven Dawes