Filler content with Urban Gothic

A review that originally appeared in Black Static #12:-

Brian Keene: Urban Gothic
(Leisure paperback, 301pp, $7.99)

Keene’s latest has a strictly minimalist feel to it as regards plot, with echoes of any teens in peril movie you’d care to name. It opens with six teenagers, after an evening at a concert, heading into a rundown urban area in search of drugs and getting seriously lost, and then their vehicle breaks down. Approached by a group of black youths, they panic and run away, seeking refuge in an old and apparently abandoned house on the end of the block, but the house has a fearsome reputation locally and the six have just stepped into a world of hurt.

So far, so Last House on the Left (the original, not the 2009 remake), and there are other echoes from Hollywood’s horror division in what follows. The monster the teens confront almost immediately after entering the house brings to mind Leatherface from The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, both in appearance and ferocity, while their flight deeper into the bowels of the house, with creatures lurking in the walls, is reminiscent of The People Under the Stairs. Similarly, concepts such as the urban cannibal tribe and mutants living outside of – but preying on – society are a common device used by many authors. Keene takes all this familiar material though and makes it his own, continually upping the tension and providing one more bizarre twist after another, with a gore quotient higher than any of his previous books that I’ve seen.

Two of their number killed almost immediately, the remaining teens flee down endless corridors that seem to close behind them and deep into a subterranean world through which they stumble, often in pitch darkness, evading one threat after another as they are chased by pursuers who are as determined as they are devoid of mercy. It’s not a novel of psychological terror, unless you think an axe between the eyes is all in the mind, or one in which atmosphere is central, and don’t come to this book expecting much in the way of insight into human nature, or any form of catharsis. This is very much an in your face horror outing, with loads of over the top violence and a bad situation that just keeps getting worse, as Keene puts his characters through some terrible things, with surprises and reversals of fortune on every other page. What carries you along is the brutal pace, with hardly a moment for any of the teenagers to catch their breath, and the relentless quality of the shit that, often literally, they have to wade through in search of a way out. As they are picked off one by one, that hope becomes a chimera, and all that’s left for any of them is to go down fighting.

The characters are well drawn and believable, especially Kerri, whose boyfriend gets them into this mess in the first place, and who she had been planning to dump, and Javier who takes it upon himself to protect the others, futile as that proves. Their adversaries are suitably repellent, with the giant Noigel and the wisecracking Scug, who wears a suit made from a woman’s skin, the most menacing, but backed up by a menagerie of other creatures with characteristics that both shock and disgust. Keene gives us little to explain their existence, but my suspicion is that there’s more to come and we will see these creatures in at least one more book. He also does a good job of drawing the neighbourhood characters, the kids who scared Javier, Kerri and the others in the first place, avoiding the usual gang banger clichés and instead giving us more rounded individuals who, by accident rather than design, rediscover a pride in their community and a willingness to do the right thing, even though they’re scared and it costs them. On occasion this element veers close to preaching, with spokesperson Perry Watkins holding forth about urban blight and the loss of neighbourliness like Heinlein’s Jubal Harshaw, as played by Bill Cosby, but Keene manages to rein it in before the reader feels he’s being lectured.

One element did give me a WTF moment, the inclusion of metal scavenger Paul, who wanders into the house just because, mucks around in the basement and then gets shredded for his troubles, none of which forwarded the plot in any significant way and seemed like a bit of padding, but it’s only a stutter in a symphony of screams, and didn’t detract from my enjoyment. With two blood soaked books a year from Leisure, Keene is shaping up as the new Richard Laymon, but with a body of work that is more consistent as regards quality, at least to judge from what I’ve seen so far, and Urban Gothic is a fine addition to his oeuvre.

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