“THE LAST HORROR NOVEL IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD” (Book Review)
I recommend a lot of odd books here on Fango. I consider that the heart of my job. Not just pointing out the big commercial strikes bowled straight down Target Audience Alley, but spotlighting the weird, improbable shots that – when pulled off – make the whole fucking game worthwhile.
To that end, the contemptuous rivalry between literary fiction and genre fiction is BIG LEBOWSKI-worthy in its absurdity: two strident scenes, driven by self-importance, self-loathing, and tribal hate, keeping score by entirely different sets of rules, yet crammed into the same arena together. The arena we call words, lumped together on pages called “books” that both sides worship like gods. Gods in need of salvation.
It is into this fracas that the demurely-titled THE LAST HORROR NOVEL IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD, by Brian Allen Carr, inserts itself. And right there, the joke is spun. It’s both epically grandstanding and patently untrue. (At least a dozen horror novels were self-published in the time it took to write this paragraph,)
You could simply dismiss this as lit’ry “Look at me!” hubris, and miss out on all the fun. Or you could get in on the joke, and marvel at how Carr plays both sides against each other. (Guess which choice I picked!)
The setup is this: we’re in a tiny-ass town named Scrape, Texas, right on the Mexican border. It makes Joe Lansdale’s Nacogdoches look like a metropolitan area. Just a handful of regular people, ripe characters all (old white racist, his black and Mexican stoner buddies, a pair of young lovers, more drunks, strumpets, and layabouts), killing time till something else comes along.
Something else comes along in the form of a devastating cosmic rift that knocks everyone in Scrape down on their asses, then unleashes a swarm of Mexican nightmare folklore iconography upon them. Including La Llorona (the weeping ghost, and her endless trail of drowned ghost children) and a swarm of deadly, disembodied black hands worthy of Clive Barker’s “The Body Politic”, only hairy as tarantulas. And then shit gets just a little bit weirder, before ending badly for pretty much everyone involved.
But here’s the thing. Carr doesn’t write it like a horror novel. He writes it, flat out, like the late Richard Brautigan: a 60s-70s cult author and hippie fave (who did not, himself, much care for hippies), specializing in ultra-stripped-down impressionistic prose, not so much telling the story as dropping sparsely vivid notes about it. Making you fill in the rest.
Kind of a bastard, if you ask me.
But here’s the other thing: I really love Richard Brautigan. And have come to really love THE LAST HORROR NOVEL IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD. All three times I’ve re-read it. For me, it’s that kind of book.
Because it’s so ridiculously stripped-down – many of the chapters are barely a page long, if that – genre readers cornfed on silo-sized Stephen King flotillas may think “This is the laziest writer I’ve ever seen.” Even a guy like me, who ceaselessly campaigns for books to trim their fat down to the bone, found himself thinking, “Jeez. This guy just set up something really juicy, and then went, ‘Nah, fuck it. Next!’” On first read, it made me a little bit crazy.
That said, I can imagine MFA-bred aficionados of The New Yorker‘s “literary still-life” school wincing in mid-disdainful snoof at the reek of actual brains blowing out of human heads, as Carr’s wicked gonzo shenanigans unspool. This is no flaccid, inert, contemplative assessment of the live unlived. This is the life unlived exploding. Unlived even as it ends. Flashes of batshit. And done.
Sooooo… if everybody’s expectations are gonna be deliberately disappointed and thwarted, by this thing or that, what’s left to like?
We’re left with the actual book itself. Carr’s writing, so dry and smart and lean. Saying tons with a phrase, a flicker of insight, a neurosurgeon’s scalpel flick. An understanding so deep of his people and place that he barely needs to say a thing. A use of white space so vast and empty it echoes and equals the desert it’s set in.
It’s also laugh-out-loud funny and relentlessly, shockingly grim, in the no-bullshit Texas modality guys like Lansdale have taught us to love. There’s something bracing about how little he says, how much he expects from us, and how little he cares about holding our dicks while we pee.
I don’t wanna read too much into this – provide the kind of wanky a-hole analysis that would hopefully send Carr cackling straight into his whiskey flask – so let’s just say that I love what a sly little experiment this is. Characteristic of Cameron Pierce’s Lazy Fascist Press, which is experimenting madly with ways to blow down the afore-mentioned literary/genre lines. And every other line they encounter, along the way.
By throwing off everybody’s expectations, and just doing what it does in a way I’ve never quite seen done before, THE LAST HORROR NOVEL IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD achieves – in bowling terms – a 7-10 split. It ain’t a strike. But it’s an amazing spare. The kind of shot that, viewed in instant replay, reveals just how deft and spinny and meticulous and lucky and hilariously game-changing a couple of moments can be.
Even in the middle of nowhere, it’s still the end of the fucking world.
More than any other book I’ve ever reviewed, I can’t wait to hear what you people make of this.