Saturday, September 28, 2013

BOOK REVIEW: Haunted by Chuck Palahniuk (2005 Anchor Books) & Lunar Park by Bret Easton Ellis (2005 Knopf)

Review by Scott Lefebvre

     I've said, and written, on more than one occasion that my two favorite horror novels from the past five years are Chuck Palahniuk's Haunted (2005) and Brest Easton Ellis's Lunar Park (2005).
     The summer I discovered both novels was an interesting one.   I had been diagnosed with a degenerative spinal disk disorder and the inflammation of the disks created pressure on the sciatic nerve causing a cripplingly agonizing pressure which kept me going back and forth, to and from the emergency room.   At the emergency room, they'd give me a week's worth of painkillers and muscle-relaxers.   Vicodins with Flexeral or, if I was lucky, Percocets with Valium.   And in a week I'd be back at the emergency room which was an incredibly expensive revolving door since I was between jobs and didn't have any health care coverage.   The pain-killers were doing very little for the pain.   They just kept me in a drunk-like state for a month or two and really fucked with my short-term memory.
     Thankfully, one of the times I went to the local scale-rate clinic I saw the wrong doctor and he prescribed me Etodolac, a non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drug which took care of the swelling.   I had to take a football-shaped horse-pill four times a day but it beat living in a painkiller haze with a dull ache every waking moment.   I tried going off the medications, thinking maybe I was cured, but when the pain returned I was frightened into taking the meds again.
     Now I'm doing okay.   I can walk and fuck and lift stuff as long as it's not heavier than I am and if my back begins to tighten up and ache I take a pill and take it easy for a couple days and I seem to do alright.
     But that month or two I was whacked out on painkillers all I did was take my medications, float around in a bathtub most of the time, and read books.
     I explain this because it was a life-changing summer.
     I thought I was dying.   Maybe not dying, but as good as dead.   I thought that I'd have to spend the rest of my life in pain, hunched over a cane, useless to any woman.   I couldn't work, and what little money I had saved away was almost gone.   I started giving away my things and preparing to die.
     I tell you all of this, because I want to impress upon you that I didn't think I had a lot of time to read a lot of books.   So I thought the books I read that summer were going to be the last books I read.
    'Haunted' and 'Lunar Park' were two of the few, and reading them was rewarding.   Their sardonic subtextual commentary on American life was complimentary to my fatalistic perspective about life and death.
     After I accidentally recovered, Palahniuk and Ellis were still important to me.
     I managed to get a job on the adolescent unit of a mental hospital.
     My living situation was intolerable.
     Two crazy room-mates, two cats, and two dogs in a third-floor tenement apartment.
     There was cat hair on everything and the dogs were not house-broken in any respect.   Every morning I'd have to wake up and hobble to the bathroom dodging pools of dog urine and little piles of dog shit.   And remember, this was the summer.   No amount of air-conditioning and air-spray can banish the lingering smell of dog leavings.
     I decided to put all of the stuff I hadn't given away in preparation for killing myself into storage and live out of my car until I had saved up enough money to get my apartment.   This was in September.   I lived in my car until January.   I would park in the parking lot of a shopping plaza that left the lights on all night and read myself to sleep.   Palahniuk's 'Fight Club', 'Choke', and 'Haunted' and Ellis's 'Glamorama' were my company on the cold nights.
     Thankfully, life has been a little less negatively exciting for the past couple years.
     Although it is true that, in my opinion, the two best horror novels of the past five years were written by authors that are not conventionally known as your stereotypical "horror authors", I wish this weren't the case.
     I wish that I could say that there was a flood of hair-raising, scare-raising, fear-evoking books that had been published, and I would be unable to make a "Top Ten of the first ten years of the new millennium" list because there were too many good books, but instead it seems that there are too few.
     It's not that I haven't read a lot of books.   I'm always reading something.   It's what I do.
     But when walking in the "Horror/Suspense" section of a library or bookstore, nothing catches my eye.
     I think it's because I'm jaded and I don't want to be fooled again into wasting my time reading a boring, predictable, and just plain unfrightening horror novel.
     I'm not unnecessarily demanding of a novel.   I want interesting characters doing interesting things and a plot that doesn't foreshadow itself so much that I know what's going to happen halfway through the book.
I'll gladly read books about the paranormal, and the psychologically aberrant and I'm not above reading books about "monsters" or human cruelty, as long as it's done with style.   A little bit of postmodern theory or cultural criticism doesn't hurt, but I don't want to read anything that tries to hard to drive home a moral message.
     I'm just not big on "horror/romance" novels that put characters that could have been drafted from a Harlequin romance novel into a "horror-movie" situation, so that they can survive to meet up at the end of the book in the back of an ambulance to nurse their wounds and ride off into the sunset.<O:P>< o:p>
     But this is the kind of novel that I find myself subjected to when I forget how much I do not enjoy these black-bound horror-themed bodice-rippers.
     I'll read anything once, especially on the recommendation of somebody else.
     And I can admit if something is well-written, even if it's something that I didn't enjoy.
     Take 'Blood and Chocolate' for example.   A girl in the mental hospital recommended that I check it out.   Basically it's a girl-oriented coming-of-age story with the additional complication that she and her family are a pack of werewolves.   The writing and vocabulary used was the kind of "Young Adolescent" style that I never seemed to mind in the Harry Potter series.   Did I enjoy the book?   Not really.   I thought it was pretty simple and transparent.   Did I think it was a good book?   Sure!   It was well-written and I loved the concept, even though it read kind of like if they made a series of books based on the 'Ginger Snaps' films, which I love, by the way, at least the first one.   It's a great book… for someone else.
     I put forth this example because I don't want people readings my reviews to think that I'm unnecessarily critical.   The type of reviewer that either loves or hates the things they experience and classifies media into the two categories of "Awesome!" and "Crap!".
     It's just that so many books published these days just don't have what it takes.
     For example, 'Hannibal Rising' by Thomas Harris.
     I'd read everything Harris published, except 'Silence of the Lambs' which is peculiarly absent from any of the local libraries I go to.   I was given the hardcover of 'Hannibal Rising' for review and I was really looking forward to reading it.   But soon I realized that Harris fell prey to the Harlequin romance horror model.   It starts off Anne Rice, in Eastern European castle setting, and then holds steady as 'The Last Samurai'.   I love Japanese culture, and I've read some of the more widely available books in translation, so I was familiar with and understood and appreciated the Musashi references.
     But if I want to read a Japanese love story I'll pick up a copy of The Tale of Genji.
     What I wanted out of 'Hannibal Rising' was the character Anthony Hopkins portrayed  in Jonathan Demme's 'Silence of the Lambs'.   Ruthless, unapologetic, cruel and sadistic but at the same time calculating, urbane and sophisticatedly sinister.
     Instead Hannibal spends most of the novel mooning over his step-mother and the murders he commits, although elaborately orchestrated and interesting as murder set-pieces, were motivated by righteous revenge.   It was as if Harris was attempting to make Hannibal a more sympathetic character, whereas for me the attraction of the character was that he was so very unsympathetic.
     Regardless of these detracting points I penned a decent critical review of the book in which I emphasized the strengths of the novel, while mentioning the faults in contrast.
     If I can't think of anything nice to say about a book I've read, I won't say anything at all.   I know that even bad press is still press, but as an author I realize the time and effort it takes to put a novel together and I never want to be in a position where I find myself needlessly, caustically, reviling or disparaging an author.
     But I was really disappointed.   If Hannibal Lecter had been neutered by his creator, then where else would the next great iconic horror author be found?
     The problem with contemporary horror fiction is that there are too many authors that have been living in the shadow of the King.   Stephen King.
     From the 70s through the new millennium King's headshot was the face of horror in America.   The impact and influence of his work upon the evolution of horror films was unignorable, but horror films and their creators were adaptable enough that they evolved creatively and in addition to exploring the territory claimed by the Kingdom of King.   But not so adaptable was the horror literature bloodline.
     For decades the blurb, "(Author's name) is the next Stephen King." Or blurbs by the King himself were the horror literature seal of approval.   This would have been fine and well, but the times have changed, and the society we live in has changed accordingly.   King may have captured the zeitgeist of the decades when he reigned supreme, but King lost his touch on the pulse of the fears which existed in the subconscious of everyday Americans.   His books lapsed into the exploration of the interiority of the characters thoughts or became showcases for the stylistic flair that had made him such an outstanding author during his ascendancy to the throne.
     His writing became a cliché.   A joke that anyone that had read as many of his books as I had already knew the punchline to.   I got of the fanwagon after reading 'Nightmares & Dreamscapes'.   I really enjoyed reading it, but having read it, I got rid of it.   It just wasn't the kind of book that one reads over and over again, discovering new insights each time.   The King formula became plain to me.   The exploration of the character, the "twist" in the third act, the open-ended resolution that left the main character to tell the tale.
     I fell for 'Secret Window' and knew that it would be King's curtain call for me.   I read it with the patient acceptance of a hopeful fan.   The book was exactly what I expected it to be.   Nothing much.   I didn't understand the hype, and although I understood why it was being adapted into a major motion picture, I didn't see the point.   The main character kills his wife and buries her in the garden.   Then he eats the corn that her body fertilizes.   An interesting but predictable premise that would have been more suited for a short story or an episode of a television show, but definitely not worth dragging out into a novel.   There will always be a corner of my heart which will be reserved for the decades I spent in the thrall of King's golden age, and I've heard some good buzz about King's latest novel 'Cell'.   But I'm skeptical.   Like a battered spouse, I've been let down and it will take a lot for King to win back my trust.
     This is why I'm not bowled over when a black-bound horror-novel touts its author as "the next Stephen King".   The authors are, for the most part, pale imitations of King's stylistic flair, plugging different characters and situations into the Stephen King bestseller generator formula and hoping that the same magic will make them into best-selling authors too.
     This is where Palahniuk and Ellis depart.   Both authors use the same device of exploring the interiority of their characters, but with a realism that escapes most of the eager young horror authors of our time.
     An author is a liar.   They create a story.   The story is a lie, and in order to get lost in the story, you have to believe the lie.   Palahniuk and Ellis seem to understand this implicitly.   Instead of trying to fabricate a frightening scenario, they explore their personal experiences and share the things which they have found interestingly unsettling about their own existences.   This is the unsolicited advice that I have offered to authors who seem to be locked into the rhythm of the march of the Stephen King impersonators.
     Don't write about the things which Stephen King found unsettling about existence.   Write about the things that you find unsettling about your life.   If through writing, you exorcise your own personal demons, readers will relate to your honesty and openness.   If you follow the Stephen King formula, your novel will reek of artifice and artificiality.   Stephen King didn't set out to be the next Richard Matheson or Robert Bloch.   King blazed his own trail and explored his own fears and self-doubt and life experiences and it was this exploration that breathed life into his work and made is both accessible and believable.   Don't strive to be the next Stephen King.   Strive to be the best whatever your name is.
     Chuck Palahniuk represents a midpoint in believability.
     His works have an intimacy and life that is absent from any of the black bound horror novels offered by major and minor horror publishers.
     In any work of fiction, the characters serve to represent the voice of the author.   Even in the most reprehensible fiction, the scenarios reflect the personality of the author.   Either exploring a personal psychological drama laid out for public examination in sentences or paragraphs, or the author's impression on events occurring in the environment around them.   It is the friction of cognitive dissonance of the individual contemplating their environment that sparks the flame which fuels the author.
     But the characters are not the author.   Chuck Palahniuk is not Jack or Tyler Durden.   Bret Easton Ellis is not Victor or Patrick Bateman.   At the same time, there is a part of the author that is these characters.   That has those thoughts.   Deep inside these authors there is a person that wants to blow up buildings or swing a whirring chainsaw into a woman.   This is what lends their works their believability.   These authors explore those impulses that any sensible adult knows are not permitted indulgences by our society.   By exploring these impulses in their work, they bring into the spotlight of public discourse these ideas.   Ideas that so many of us have, but are afraid to admit.   If these impulses were alien, the books created by these authors would not have achieved the popularity and success that they have.   The truth is that if you buy into reading Fight Club or American Psycho you're allowing yourself to vicariously, cathartically explore that part of you which sympathizes with Tyler Durden or Patrick Bateman.   There's a little bit of both of them in you.   It's not as if this is some big revelation, although it may be to some of you.   You may disagree and think, "I'm nothing like those characters.   That's fucked up."   But let's be honest.   Why did you read 'American Psycho'?   Why did you read 'Fight Club'?   Or any "horror" novel for that matter?   You must have had some idea of what you were getting yourself into.   No one forced you to read the books at gunpoint.
     The truth of the matter is that you enjoyed it, or you would have stopped reading.   If you were truly opposed to the content of the book you would have put it down and moved on with your lives, chalking up the time you spent reading the book to experience.
     The truth that so few people are willing to admit is that there is a little bit of them in you, but here's where the boundary between reality and fiction exists.   The authors are not the characters they create.   Even in the largely autobiographical work of Charles Bukowski, there is Bukowski the author and Chinaski the character.   For all of Bukowski's unflinching and beautiful exploration of the despair and bitter humor of everyday life, it is widely known that Bukowski used the author's device of "selective reality".   The Chinaski on the page was not the Bukowski in life.   A close approximation, but the act of the author filtering his experiences into a written work unavoidably creates a degree of artificiality and separation.   Even the most talented authors can manage to bring themselves close enough that only a thin degree of separation exists between their life and their work.   But this ability is a rare gift, and many authors are too busy trying to write "great fiction" that they accidentally snuff the life out of their work.   Honesty requires bravery and the ability to reveal the inner workings of oneself for public criticism.
     Chuck Palahniuk is one of the rare breed of authors that is open enough to share with his readers this close approximation to his experiences.
     Being a fan of Palahniuk's work has been an interesting experience.
     I've read everything that I could acquire of his through the public library system.   Which was, surprisingly, pretty much everything he's had published, including audio books.
     I borrowed his collection of non-fiction essays, Stranger Than Fiction from the library in audio book form, and enjoyed it so much that I put it on my computer and created a three-disk mix-down of my favorite stories that I would burn for friends who I thought would appreciate the gesture.   I wasn't trying to convert anyone.   I was trying to share with people that shared my somewhat elitist opinion on film and literature more of the same.
     I've listened to the Chuck Palahniuk / Jim Uhls commentary track on David Fincher's film adaptation at least a dozen times, if not more like more than twenty times.
     Palahniuk is attractively earnest about his writing process.   In the piece "This is why I write." from Stranger Than Fiction' Palahniuk is almost embarrassingly nakedly open about the life experiences that inspire him to write.   The piece reveals to enthusiasts of his work the experiences from his life that were the creative genesis for his works.   Few authors would admit to sitting in a bathtub, the water diluted with their own blood, talking on the phone with a friend about the small crystal pinched between their fingers which they had just passed through their urethra, their senses cushioned by a liberal application of painkillers.   But for all of its openness, "This is why I write" discloses why he writes, not how he writes.
     In a way, Palahniuk is a modern American folklorist.   American folklore has changed since the days of Washington Irving's headless Hessian from Sleep Hollow.   American folklore has become urban legend.   The almost universal popularity of urban legends is a testament to the phenomenological argument.   Simply stated, unless you were personally present and witnessed the event, there's no way for anyone to know the truth about any situation.   And even firsthand accounts are colored, altered by the personal interpretation of the individual.   The inability of the individual to approximate the reality of any given situation outside of the situation requires any intelligent person to maintain a certain degree of skepticism to avoid being completely gullible and open to exploitation by the manipulation of others.
     Much could be said about the lack of skepticism of many Americans when relating to the information provide to them by the providers of their media.   But this is not that kind of essay.   This is a discussion of the writing process of Chuck Palahniuk.
     Palahniuk's writing is a fictional framework which deftly interweaves his personal experiences and concepts about contemporary American society.
     Being as familiar as I am with the writing process of Palahniuk as I am I began to recognize where themes were coming from in Palahniuk's personal experiences.   Victor attending sex addicts support meetings, similarly exploited in his novel 'Fight Club', resonates with Palahniuk's volunteering at a hospice, where as a volunteer without comprehensive medical training one of the things he could do to help was take hospice residents back and forth from support meetings.   Donny's substitution of compulsive masturbation with collecting rocks on an increasingly larger scale was foreshadowing that he would use his collection to build a castle, because I had listened to Palahniuk's essay 'The Castle Builders' on 'Stranger Than Fiction'.
     Palahniuk startlingly innovative creativity enabled his novel to keep me surprised and entertained even though I knew what the end of the story would probably be.   The ending resolved the way that I expected it would, but the manner in which the characters found their way to the logical resolution of their character arcs was continually exhilaratingly surprising and unexpected.
     Palahniuk is very self-aware as an author and is also concisely, deftly, aware of literary conventions.   He is an author that has studied the process of writing and the dynamic processes which enable authors to create their work.   This knowledge allows Palahniuk to transcend literary conventions, intentionally inverting literary clichés.   But Palahniuk does not simply invert literary clichés.   Instead, knowing the stereotypes of literature he makes a conscious effort to do something different.   Something unexpected.   This is the pleasure that readers experience when reading the novels of Chuck Palahniuk.   Whatever they expect the characters to do is the very thing that they do not do.   Palahniuk does not simply present readers with a "twist" in the third act, but instead presents characters that are constantly changing and evolving in reaction to the fictional events occurring around them.   But Palahniuk's writing is not exclusive.   Palahniuk is not condescending towards his reading audience.   Palahniuk avoids alienating his audience with obscure pop cultural or literary references although he would no doubt be readily able to do so.
     Instead, Palahniuk presents us with characters that despite their unique traits are easily accessible and sympathetic.   Palahniuk's writing seems to say, "It's alright if some of the things that happened in your life were fucked up.   You're not alone.   Everyone has fucked up things happen in their lives, but it's how a person deals with the unexpected accidents of life that makes them who they are."   Palahniuk doesn't present us with monstrous characters.   Palahniuk presents us with characters that would have been unexceptional except for the unique characteristics that make them exceptional and which draw his characters to be attracted to situations and other characters which perpetuate the dynamicism of their lives.   Palahniuk's characters are never swept along by the irresistible current of fate.   Palahniuk's characters take an active role in their existences, but in doing so they project themselves into the course of their lives, eventually creating the resolution that they always secretly knew was waiting for them but they pretended was the thing that they did not want.   Palahniuk's main characters are all case-studies of the self-fulfilling prophecy.   The practice of rationalizing one's actions through lying to oneself about your intentions when your actions clearly could only bring about the result that one subconsciously desires.   The literary equivalent of the Freudian slip.   Even the disfigured lead character from 'Invisible Monsters' is entirely sympathetic and exhibits a range thoughts and behavior which resonates at a wavelength in synchronicity with archetypical qualities that we all share as human animals.
     All of this is true about Palahniuk's 'Haunted'.   The most succinct summarization of the premise of the book is a modern day Canterbury Tales, populated by a laundry list of urban legends.   And this is true.   But it's so much more than that.   Most authors have difficulty wrangling even a handful of characters through a novel from beginning to end.   I respect Palahniuk for even attempting to integrate the cavalcade of characters he introduces in this one novel.
     Palahniuk's openness about his writing process makes apparent that the premise of the book is simply a device.   A framework used to bind together the many stories and characters that Palahniuk combines in 'Haunted'.   The premise is that of a writer's retreat which goes horribly wrong.   All of the attendees are uniquely dysfunctional variations on the stereotype of the aspiring author who knows in their heart that they have the next great American novel within them if only they could somehow find the time to get away and put it all down on paper.   This theme resonates with the feeling of Palahniuk's expositional story about a writer's pitch conference from 'Stranger Than Fiction', in which aspiring authors pay for the privilege of being given five minutes to pitch the idea for their great American novel to potential publishers.
     The aspiring authors are finally granted the time they always claimed they needed when they are imprisoned in an abandoned theater by the organizer of the retreat.   Faced with the confrontation to the lie that every one of them has been perpetuating so long that it has become part of who they are, the authors do what so many of the aspiring authors that unwittingly perpetuate that stereotype do.   They procrastinate, finding faults with their environment and generating friction and conflict amongst the participants.   Of course, everything goes all "Lord of the Flies", but Palahniuk avoids directly appropriating the zeitgeist of Golding's book by incorporating a paranormal spin on the ensuing events.
     If the story of the conflict between the participants was the only story arc it would have still been a compelling read.   It is true that this scenario is the main story.  It is the story that carries the characters through the narrative.   But much like the journey in Canterbury Tales, this is a narrative device used as a setting into which the highly personal revelations of the individual characters are laid.
     Palahniuk uses another device to present the confessional tales of the participants of the retreat.   The device used is that of presentational monologues reminiscent of performance art.   Each character is portrayed displayed on the stage of the theater while images complimentary to and foreshadowing of the theme of their story are projected over the characters and the screen in front of which they stand.
     These vignettes derail the wrap-around story of the devolution of the group with the presentational artificiality of the style in which they are presented.   As a reader I was never quite sure if these vignettes were actual occurring real-time within the story or where happening in the characters minds or were a flashback to an evening or nightly event where everyone took their turn telling their most embarrassing, life-changing personal crises.   Palahniuk could have instead organically integrated the stories into the through story of the devolution of the group as a process of the natural personal pre-occupation of people and the need to perpetuate themselves as the lead characters in their own personal dramas.   Nothing comes more naturally to those who believe themselves to be predisposed to literary prowess.   Authors, at heart, are storytellers, and artists necessarily create in reaction to their environments, and the one inescapable constant of the environment is the awareness of oneself.   But without a comparison to compare against it is feasible to suggest that this manner of integrating the stories would have seemed equally as impregnated with artifice.
     The stories themselves are a brilliantly illuminating collection of the unfortunate origins of urban legends.   The same way that Palahniuk provides a laundry list of sexual urban legends to introduce the sex addicts support group in 'Choke', Palahniuk gracefully, gradually, gives his readers an embarrassingly candid collection of stories about the thing that changed the course of the lives of each character in turn.
     I refuse to elaborate upon the stories, believing that to do so would deprive the reader of experiencing the discovery of these darkly luminescent gems on their own.   Suffice it to say that when Palahniuk went on promotional tour for 'Haunted' and read a sample from the book, the story 'Guts' as related by the character 'Saint Guts-Free', there was an epidemic of individuals at the readings fainting or getting violently sick as he made his was through the tour.
     The stories have the impact of a car crash.   Not the experience of driving past the rapidly cooling wrecks at an accident site, driving by as a safe spectator behind intact safety glass.   The effect is that of being in a car crash where time slows down and everything seems to happen at once and the seeming inevitability of fate and a helpless inability to have any effect on your surroundings.   The stories are sad and funny and poignant in turn.   Not every one of them is exceptional.   But those that are exceptional are incredible.
     The stories are there.
     You know where to find them.
     They are waiting for you to have the courage to relax the clenched fist of your expectations and let the stories happen to you.
     Bret Easton Ellis approaches his writing from a different direction.
     His writing has a quality that I despise as a personal quality.
     The ability to lie convincingly.
     This is the difference between the writing of Chuck Palahniuk and Bret Easton Ellis.
     Palahniuk seems to be saying to his audience, "Gather round.   I'm going to tell you a story.   Parts of the story are true, but the names have been changed to protect both the innocent and the flagrantly guilty.   But in the end it's just a story."
     Ellis's process is much more dangerous and subversive.   Ellis practices the process used by successful liars.   Instead of barefacedly lying in the process used by many authors of fiction, Ellis presents a framework of truth with elements of untruth.
     Similar to the experience of listening to a liar, there's a process one goes through.   A bad liar says things that conflict violently with the knowledge base of the person being lied to.   This is how liars are discovered.   They try to sell a story so full of untruths that only the most unskeptically gullible would lend their belief.
     There's another process going on simultaneous with the process of the liar trying to influence the mind of the person being lied to.   The person being lied to most likely does not want to be lied to.   The person being lied to most likely has a vague and general idea about whatever it is that is being discussed and they find themselves somehow depending on information which is being provided to them by someone who is intentionally misrepresenting the truth for their own purpose.
     This is similar to what I meant when I said that all authors of fiction are liars.   They are using words to attempt to influence the impressions of their audience.   Intentionally misrepresenting reality for their own purpose.   The problem is that many contemporary authors of fiction are bad liars.   They present a framework and characters and events that conflict with the ability of the readers to buy into the story and to go along for the ride.   It is this lack of believability that detracts from my enjoyment of these authors.
     Allow me to clarify, it's not the elements of the story that any sensible person knows are fictional which cause the cognitive dissonance which cause me to think, "Bullshit!".   Things like vampires and werewolves and giant monsters.   A talented author is able to make the obviously false believable.
     A perfect example of the insidious inter-weaving of the fictional into the factual is exhibited by the second chapter of Bret Easton Ellis's collection of short stories titled 'The Informers' (.   At its simplest, it's a vampire story set in then contemporary Los Angeles.   But it's so much more than that.   It's an exploration of individuals complicit with the irony underlying the worldview which permeates Los Angeles.   An irony that everyone is subconsciously aware of, but they choose to consciously ignore, and in doing so become complicit with.   It's an exploration of the objectification and dehumanization that functions when people become objects that buy and sell each other and themselves.   But it's also about vampires.    Ellis's talent lies in his ability to introduce the grossly unbelievable element of the story in a way that the reader is never directly confronted with the disparity of the fictional and the believable.   His process is as gradual as a seduction, asking for a subtly increasing amount of credulity from his readers as the story progresses until they find themselves complicit with the characters.   Readers find themselves unable to not believe in the story that the author is presenting.
     This talent is not unique to Ellis.   In fact, I put forth that this was one of the elements that made Stephen King so successful during his golden age of best-selling novels.   King similarly established a believable framework into which he infused undertones of evil and menace.   Both Ellis and King explore the dark truths about the repressed reality of American society.   Children and adults disappear and are never seen again, victims of the irresistible compulsions of other adults.   It is possible that a virus could evolve that could sweep across the nation, killing the majority of its population.   It is true that there are cities that disappear, abandoned in haste, and nobody is quite sure why, the truth of the matter lost with the people who once resided there.   It is true that although Christianity is on the wane, most people are still "spiritual" and many have experienced things that make them unsure of the inflexible qualities of the reality around them.   Any of the authors that I have referenced in a favorable light engage in the same exploration of the interiority of the individual psyche and the underlying fears that the individual sometimes secretly harbors about the unfamiliar and the unknown.   This is why we tell our children not to talk to strangers, but enjoy telling each other ghost stories.   The thrill of existence which is always complimented by the inevitability of death.   Eros and Thanatos.
     Ellis's Lunar Park is a masterwork.   Not that it is his best novel.   I have to admit that I enjoy Glamorama more.   Lunar Park is a masterwork in that it exists as a part of, but apart from his body of work.
     At it's simplest, 'Lunar Park' is a ghost story.   A ghost story and a haunted house story with thematic elements reminiscent of Jay Anson's 'The Amityville Horror' and the movie 'Poltergeist'.   But if it was just a ghost / haunted house story then it wouldn't be the masterwork that it is.   In this novel Ellis writes in a way that seems disarmingly candid about himself.   But this is where the tell of the trick is.   Remember earlier when I wrote about the process an author engages in when they confessionally, but selectively, relate the "truth" about themselves.   There is always a degree of artificiality in the process.   Ellis is shockingly candid in his writing about himself as an individual and an author.   He writes at length about his life and the organic progression of events that resulted in his literary notoriety.   He writes about the life of dissolution that he led succumbing to the influences of celebrity and lavishly details his experiences in the excesses of sex and drugs.   A modern day Hollywood Babylon.
     If this was the sole foundation of the novel, it would be similar to the body of the author's work wherein he builds his work with sentences name-dropping celebrities and over-priced designer items and exclusive events which are the defining qualities of the cult of celebrity which has evolved into a parasitic industry with media outlets devoted exclusively to the perpetuation of the illusion of a transcendent significance to the whole phenomenon.
     Ellis's talent in the novels representative of these qualities is that he puts the phenomenon of celebrity forth for criticism, and the moral ambivalence and shallow superficiality of his characters in their knowing complicity with the illusion stamps them with an integral fault in their character.   You are not meant to like Patrick Bateman.   But since he is the main character in the novel you become complicit with him when you vicariously experience the things he experiences.   Patrick Bateman is morally bankrupt and his moral bankruptcy exposes the hypocrisy of the reader's obsession with wealth and fame.   The reader subconsciously envies the freedom and status of the character while simultaneously experiencing aversion to his behavior.   It is this discomfort, this cognitive dissonance, that fuels the larger part of the writings of Bret Easton Ellis.
     In 'Lunar Park' the author's writing evolves, exploring a broader theme.   Instead of establishing an intentionally superficial world of objectification and commoditization as a scapegoat for the ambivalent emotions of the secret lust and incredulous disgust of the reader, the author explores the consequences of the excesses of fame and fortune.   Ellis presents the character of himself as a married father determinedly struggling against his conflicting desires.   The desire to relapse into the world of drugs and sexual abandon and transcendent celebrity and the desire to try to become less self-centered and commit himself to keeping together the marriage and family that he discovered himself a member of almost accidentally.
     It is this conflict that drives the earlier part of the novel, and readers may begin to think that the novel is about the struggle of an over-indulgent former celebrity coming to terms with the responsibility of adulthood.
     Having established the character and the framework of the narrative and seeming to have put forth the central conflict which will motivate the character, the novel gradually becomes a different novel.   This is the part where the skill of the author becomes apparent.   In Glamorama, the lead character, Victor, is presented as a superficial, self-centered pseudo-celebrity living an absurd life almost completely devoid of responsibility or accountability where he unthinkingly goes through life doing whatever he wants to do at any given moment.   This existence is fueled by a wealth that is nebulous and ever present.   The novel changes into a novel about a story where world-class models are used as assassins because of their superficiality and fame and Victor gradually realizes that by unthinkingly enjoying the benefits of his self-centered irresponsibility he is complicit with those who orchestrated the terrible terroristic events he finds himself participating in and he is helpless to influence the course of events because his wealth and fame have become fatalistic influences which compel him to remain complicit with the events because he is already guilty by association.   He is unwittingly complicit with the evil events in the novel and if he were to try to somehow extricate himself from the situation in an attempt to absolve his guilt and avoid further involvement with the nefarious plans intended for his participation, he would have to suffer the consequences of those crimes which he was unaware that he had been committing, and having spent so much of his life in a child-like state of irresponsibility he does not have the integrity or strength of will to act in defiance of the machinations of those around him.   It would be easy to vilify Victor.   But somehow Ellis manages to evolve Victor into a sympathetic character and Victor's helplessness acquires an air of poignancy and the reader sympathizes with Victor's inability to escape the invisible shackles which bind him to his pseudo-celebrity.
     In 'Lunar Park', Ellis uses the same process of introducing a character and establishing his primary conflicts and gradually changing the novel into a completely different novel.   It's not the fact that Ellis orchestrated this evolution which makes this book exceptional, but the manner in which he accomplished the transition that makes it exceptional.
     In 'American Psycho' Ellis perpetrated the transition much less subtly.   The author introduced the morally bankrupt existence of Patrick Bateman and gradually alternated between sets of paragraphs delineating the banality of the characters existence with sets of paragraphs delineating the characters ever quickening descent into madness and disconnection from humanity.
     In 'Lunar Park' the author perpetrates the change in an innocuous manner.   Ellis buries a sentence of surreality into a paragraph entailing the banality of his coping with his growth into suburban life.   He introduces the unusual events which establish the transition from the normal to the paranormal simultaneous with the author as a character's relapse to drug use.   The surreality of the drug-distorted consciousness of the character allows the character to chalk the initial encroachment of the paranormal into his struggle to adapt to suburban life up as artifacts of the influence of the drugs.   It must have been the cocaine or the alcohol or a due to the effect or side-effect of the miscellany of prescription drugs the character liberally administers to himself to soften the hard edges of everyday life.
     This is an example of the quality of Ellis's work that makes him exceptional.   It is the inverse of the process of many authors.   Many authors attempt to elicit the sense of Déjà vu in their audience.   The sense of the unfamiliar becoming familiar.   They attempt to orchestrate a chord which resonates with their readers allowing their fiction to transcend artificiality and to imbue their writing with a life of its own.
     Ellis contrastingly expertly practices the art of Déjà Jamais.   The process wherein the familiar becomes unfamiliar.   Ellis's scenarios begin in such a realistic manner that readers buy into the premise from the beginning, and the introduction of the fictional is so gradual that the audience finds itself lulled into complicity.   Ellis avoids the jarring contrast of the believable and unbelievable which inspires the disbelief of readers.   His ability to do this with artful mastery is, I believe, part of the reason for the controversy which erupted accompanying the publication of 'American Psycho'.   Any sensible reader is aware of the process divorcing an author from his work, but the hypnotizing subtlety that Ellis accomplishes this literary magic trick, caused some readers to feel ashamed of their complicity with the outlandish excess of the violence of the events portrayed in the novel.   They felt guilt and disgust with themselves at finding themselves experiencing events from the perspective of a truly reprehensible character, and they vented their righteous indignation by vilifying the author instead of admiring his ability to flawlessly execute the fundamental illusion of the author of fiction.   Those that protested the content of the novel were unwilling or unable to recognize the novel as a fictional exploration of a collection of the more unappealing compulsions repressed by some members of humanity.   Protestors did not realize that by venting their indignation they did little more than exponentially increase the novel's reputation as a controversy inducing phenomenon and help to insure that the novel would retain a value as a focal point for the discussion of controversial literature and literature exploring the inhumanity insidiously interwoven into the banality of contemporary American society.
     As a modern author, Ellis's work incorporates the post-modern aesthetic exhibited in our society by the perpetual irony and sarcasm of teenagers.   The continual questioning of the truth of any claim to authority over the guidelines of reality and morality.   Being familiar with the author's body of work, I expected Ellis to explore the gradual progression from reality to surreality, but in 'Lunar Park' Ellis incorporates another theme in his exploration of the permeable barrier between reality and fiction.
     The character of Bret Easton Ellis, who the author introduces as himself, drawing readers in with a disarming revelation of his fame-enabled dissolution, begins to question his sanity when elements of his previous novels begin to manifest themselves in his reinvented existence as a suburbanite.   The manifestation of these characters and elements increase in accordance with the increasing intensity of the paranormal events occurring in the author as character's home.
     It's not a new device.   Wes Craven explored the idea in his return to the Nightmare on Elm Street franchise, 'Wes Craven's New Nightmare', and Stephen King explored the theme in his novel 'The Dark Half', but King was not brave enough to write himself into his novel, although I admire his honesty in discussing his history of drug use and the effect it had on his life and work, which is strikingly similar and comparable to the life experiences admitted by Ellis.
     In conclusion, despite the fact that I do not think that 'Lunar Park' or 'Haunted' are the best novels by their respective authors, I think that they are the best horror novels I've read that have been published in the last five years.   I guess this is what happens when talented authors that have already established themselves as proficient in their craft decide to experiment in the horror genre.   This type of cross-genre experimentation is not always a success.   Charles Bukowski's 'Pulp', the last of his novels is a wonderfully imaginative and surprisingly post-modern exploration of the pulp detective genre, but despite the fact that Bukowski is probably my favorite author I would never say that 'Pulp' was my favorite novel of the genre.   And Stephen King's non-fiction 'Danse Macabre', although thoroughly revealing and informative, was a challenging work to complete.   Thankfully Stephen King's later non-fictional work, 'On Writing'' was a much more readable creature.
     Consider this review as a rare, unqualified, recommendation.
     A recommendation that even if you don't have the money to go out and purchase the books, or know anyone that owns them, at the very least, go to your public library and borrow these two books.
     But I warn you.   These two novels may change the way that you feel about horror fiction.   You will most likely experience nausea and disgust and quite possibly fear.   The fear that one experiences when you realize that everything you thought you knew was wrong.   The fear that one experiences when you realize something terrible about someone that you thought you knew.   The fear that one experiences when you realize that you've swum out far enough that you might not be able to get back to shore.
     The characters in these books do not overcome the unlikely situations that they find themselves in and reunite in an ambulance at the end to nurse their wounds while riding off into the sunset.
    The characters, if they survive until the end, are irrevocably changed by the experiences that they endure.   Characters, both sympathetic and unsympathetic are equally subjected to the vicissitudes of the events which unfold within these darkly insightful books.
     No one is safe.   Least of all unwitting readers with delicate sensibilities.
     There is no safe haven, and I wouldn't enjoy them nearly as much if there were.

About the Reviewer:
Scott Lefebvre can write about whatever you want him to write about.
Mostly because when he was grounded for his outlandish behavior as a hyperactive school child, the only place he was allowed to go was the public library.
His literary tastes were forged by the works of Helen Hoke, Alvin Schwartz and Stephen Gammell, Ray Bradbury, Richard Matheson, Stephen King, Clive Barker, Edgar Allan Poe, and H. P. Lovecraft.
He is the author of Spooky Creepy Long Island, and a contributing author to Forrest J. Ackerman’s Anthology of the Living Dead, Fracas: A Collection of Short Friction, The Call of Lovecraft, and Cashiers du Cinemart.
He is currently working on ten novel-length book projects which will be released in 2014.
He also publishes themed collections of interviews from his interview blog You Are Entitled To My Opinion.
His reviews have been published by a variety of in print and online media including Scars Magazine, Icons of Fright, Fatally Yours and Screams of Terror, and he has appeared in Fangoria, Rue Morgue and HorrorHound Magazine.
He is the Assistant Program Director for The Arkham Film Society and produces electronic music under the names Master Control and LOVECRAFTWORK.
He is currently working on a novel-length expansion of a short-story titled, "The End Of The World Is Nigh", a crowd-funded, crowd-sourced, post-apocalyptic, zombie epidemic project.
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