Monday, August 20, 2007

The horror, the horror

The Sheila and I went to the Jersey Shore for a couple of days and being contrarians, we stayed in the least hoppin' town of all. One word is enough to suggest the anomaly that is Ocean Grove: dry. Yep, you won't find any booze in that quaint little hamlet. You can't buy it in stores and you can't buy it in restaurants. Finding it is easy, mind you: You only have to follow the boardwalk north to Asbury Park or south to Bradley Beach. But the folks of Ocean Grove get their kicks out the Methodist way—by praying, eating a lot of ice cream (only $2 for a small sundae!), and buying scented candles and wooden ducks. The big event on Saturday night was a double bill of Air Supply and Little River Band at the Great Auditorium (the size of a football field and usually hosting preachers). The GA is surrounded by Ocean Grove's biggest oddity: a tent city of over 100 permanent, trailer home–size tents, passed down from generation to generation.

We stayed at a small inn so quaint that people were giving us dark looks when we were watching High School Musical 2 in the common room (no TVs in the guest rooms) on Sunday evening. But I was pretty happy with our rugged accommodations because the inn had a bookshelf of beach readings left behind by previous vacationers. I don't mind sharing a bathroom if I can get my mitts on old paperbacks by John Saul, Clive Cussler, Dean Koontz, Sidney Sheldon and—prize of prizes!—Judith Krantz. I finished the book I'd brought, Scott Smith's The Ruins (and left it behind, in true inn spirit) and got through Saul's Guardian. Add to these Joe Schreiber's upcoming Eat the Dark, which I recently polished off over a couple of subway rides, and a few thoughts about horror fiction surfaced. Okay, one thought: It's in a pretty sorry state, relying on clich├ęs and skimpy psychological insights, and tying it all up with plain bad writing.

As a dedicated genre writer, Saul is easy to dismiss by most critics. He's one step above Dean Koontz, but not a very high step. If I recall correctly the handful of his books that I've read, Guardian is no better or worse. Suffice it to say that it hinges on a revelation of lycanthropy and a government experiment gone wild—and I'm not spoiling anything, as any reader with a tenth of a brain will figure it all out early on. But I got through it fairly painlessly. Eat the Dark, on the other hand, is plain embarrassing, like something written by a ten-year-old weaned on Z-grade serial-killer books and movies.

Smith's novel is the most "literary" of the three and it even got a rave from Laura Miller in Salon. But a lot of her assessment seems based on misreading. Miller writes that "The de facto leader, Jeff, is a medical student who probably keeps a copy of 'The Worst-Case Survival Manual' on his bedside table." Except I seem to remember that Jeff is going to enter med school after his Mexico vacation—he's not a med student yet. Miller also writes that he "is the closest any character comes in 'The Ruins' to a traditional hero: He's fairly resourceful, he makes plans, and when he decides that something nasty has to be done, he's got the nerve to do it." Perhaps, but half of his decisions are also wrong: He's the one who gets the group on the path to destruction to begin with; because he's convinced he's always right, he always dimisses his girlfriend's warnings. It's hard to find a a better symbol for the gung-ho American male than Jeff. Furthermore, the book entirely relies on the Idiot's Principle, ie the characters need to behave like total morons and do counterintuitive things for things to move along.

On the other hand (and I'm not sure whether this is entirely on purpose), The Ruins turns out to be a pretty fascinating indictment of young Americans: spoiled, brattish, obsessed with instant gratification and completely unable to think more than two minutes ahead—actions don't have consequences for these cretins. I suppose that is the real horror of the book.

Could Stephen King's 1970s and 1980s novels have represented a high point of modern horror writing, and we didn't even know it?


Judy said...

Ocean Grove is so cute! However, it is somewhat lacking in the fried snack food/flashing neon department. Tasteful and the Jersey Shore aren't two phrases you normally hear in the same sentence, but I like it.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

But fried food is a three-minute walk away in Asbury Park! Though the best is in Seaside Heights, where I once ate a fried PB&J sandwich. It was good, too.