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By Garrett Cook
Evil Nerd Empire / ISBN: 1-439-20081-5
As regular readers know, I'm a particularly big fan of so-called "bizarro" literature (or "weird" or "experimental" or "mindf-ck" or whatever you want to call it), precisely because I'm naturally attracted to strange and complicated things, and this particular subgenre of the arts is about as strange and complicated as it gets. But this also makes the subgenre a particularly difficult one to analyze and rate, because there's such a fine line between the great and subpar within it; that's part of the entire point, after all, is that bizarro tales are specifically meant to appeal to only a small niche audience, and specifically break away from the normal rules for so-called "mainstream" literature, so it can be extremely difficult sometimes to differentiate between "breaking the rules superbly" and "breaking the rules only adequately," and to explain the difference to others.
Take for example today's book under review, the slim and legitimately disturbing Murderland: h8, the first in a new series of alt-horror novels by bizarro newcomer Garrett Cook, because it's a good example of exactly what I'm talking about; it's not necessarily worse than any of the other bizarro books I review here, but you can't help but feel slightly disappointed by it anyway, like that there was a lot more that could've been done that wasn't, and feeling slightly miffed afterwards that you were the one to think of them and not the guy you just gave twelve bucks and/or two days of your life to. And why that is with this particular book versus others is hard to explain, but I'm going to try anyway, because like I said I enjoy things that are strange and complicated, even if that's the strange and complicated reasons why I like things that are strange and complicated.
Because right away, please understand that you are heading down some weird, dark roads even by picking this title up; its core premise, in fact, is that serial killing has been legalized in certain sections of a post-democracy (and possibly post-apocalyptic) America, and that there may or may not as well be actual malicious supernatural creatures that exist in this alternate reality too, who like a pantheon of dark gods interfere with human affairs to disastrous and violent effect. And okay, I'll buy all that so far -- after all, this is almost the same exact premise as Jeremy Shipp's Sheep and Wolves, which made CCLaP's "Best of the Best" year-end list last year, in fact so similar a concept that it makes me wonder if the two genre writers have maybe gotten drunk together at a convention in the past or something along those lines.
But to understand why it was so great in Shipp's case but only so-so here, maybe we should turn yet again to a more famous example who I cite here a lot, and probably pick on just a little too much as a result -- our old friend Joss Whedon, who I kinda like and I kinda don't, and who is also known for ludicrous premises for his projects that nonetheless are kind of fascinating. But the problem with fascinating, ludicrous premises is that eventually all the Road-Runner-style "yeah, right, but what about..." questions start slowly coming out, no matter what the project; you know, all the thoughts along the lines of, "What do you mean, she's a high-school student who's also an ass-kicking vampire slayer? How could she possibly keep something like that quiet? When does she even sleep, for God's sake? If she's so good at killing them, why don't all the vampires f-cking leave?"
Now, I don't expect a bizarro author to answer all these questions, and in fact this is a basic part of being a fan of weird literature in the first place, a certain willingness to simply accept at face value many of these ridiculous conceits. But I'll say this, that the more an author goes to the trouble of answering such questions in a smart and inventive way, the better that author is, and the more I like them -- it's the difference between, say, JJ Abrams, who over the course now of five years with LOST has built one of the most complex yet internally logical hard-science-fiction storylines in history, and someone like Whedon who often responds to these situations with, "Oh, why are you asking all those silly questions? Here, look at this fight scene instead! Hot Chick Karate! Hot Chick Karate!" And so it is with ML:h8 as well, which as interesting a concept as it is just starts immediately inspiring basic questions concerning logic from page one, questions like: how big exactly are these "Safe Zones" where killing is now legal? How did they come about in the first place? Is it all killing that's legal? If so, why does anyone even choose to live there, much less keep going out at night alone like they all keep freaking doing? If it's only certain kinds of killing that's legal, what's the deciding factor? Is it the ratings that particular killer gets? (That's another part of the premise, by the way, that serial killing in these zones has become a form of cult entertainment, complete with its own reality channel and fan-clubs.) Why are these killers considered "safe" when being chased by the police and suddenly making it to the border of one of these zones? By the very rules of the zone, couldn't the police just cross the border themselves and also indiscriminately kill whoever they wanted?
None of these questions have to be answered, although all of them could; but Cook ends up glossing over them all to instead serve up an endless series of admittedly arresting visual images: street gangs based on famous psychopaths (the Gacys all in clown makeup, the Bundys in conservative yuppie outfits), plastic surgery so that jaws can be stretched into monstrous grins at the moment of murder, etc etc etc. In fact, you know what this novel reminds me of, now that I think about it? It reminds me of that f-cking infuriating graphic novel 30 Days of Night by Steve Niles and Ben Templesmith, which once again starts out with an intriguing premise (a coven of vampires travel to the Arctic each winter, for a month of perpetual darkness and an orgy of bloodletting), but by halfway through makes you realize, "Oh, okay, you're not actually going to do anything with this premise -- it's just an excuse to draw 128 wicked-cool pictures of vampires standing in the middle of fields of stark bloody snow. I see." This is how ML:h8 feels a lot of the time too, like that this entire project started with an image of surly goth teens hanging out in costume at a serial-killer-themed pub, and that only then did Cook start wrapping a 150-page story around it.
Now, I don't mean to slag too much on this book, because like I said there are lots of great parts as well; Cook has a nice, sharp personal style, for example, a sorta reined-in stream-of-consciousness that appeals deeply to me, plus I like that we never for absolutely sure know even by the end whether these supposed malicious spirits (the "Dark Ones") actually exist, or are the paranoid delusions of our unreliable narrator (who ironically is a killer of serial-killers, purposely hiding his crimes because he believes it to be ideologically purer than showing off for the press). It's just...oh, I don't know, ever since Neil Gaiman tackled the same subjects in an old issue of his seminal comic Sandman, we've had almost twenty years now for the bar to get set quite high for stories not only about organized groups of serial killers but also the concept of serial killer as media celebrity. If another such story is to truly grab me, it needs to do things I wouldn't naturally think of myself, not just wallow in the very images that so easily spring to mind just on one's own.
It's a bit-above-'meh' book, which is why today it's getting a bit-above-'meh' score; that said, Cook definitely has me hooked now on the entire "Murderland" series, and I do hope that his publisher will end up sending me volume two as well (Life During Wartime, coming later this year), if for no other reason than to see if he ends up addressing any of the questions brought up today. It's definitely worth a chance if you're an existing bizarro fan; if you're not, though, you can pretty safely skip it altogether.
Out of 10: 7.6