Written by Stephen Graham Jones
Published by MacAdam/Cage
There are certain books that really do defy genre. Sure, everyone’s heard of the ones that cross from one genre into the next, taking elements of horror and mixing it into sci-fi or something of the like. Still there are others, though they are few and far between, that are so utterly perplexing in their execution that some unsuspecting reader might not know what he has in his hands. True, it looks and smells like a novel, but opening it up reveals something much more akin to a screenplay. Moreover, only a few pages in reveals a wealth of footnotes into what the author was thinking about any given scene, much like a dissertation. So what exactly is it? It is Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones, and that’s as good an explanation as any.
Ignoring the format for a moment, the story is actually pretty straightforward. A group of friends respond to a call from one of the group’s mothers. They return to his old homestead where something stalks them and where a secret from the past rears its ugly head. In addition, these characters, who will seem very familiar to anyone who’s ever watched a slasher film, seem to make all the classic blunders of the slasher genre, all the while painfully aware of those mistakes. The guy’s mother is missing, presumably taken by the same thing that stole his sister (and several others over the years) from right out of the yard. One by one, their numbers dwindle in an homage to every secluded-house-horror film ever made. Without giving away any key plot points, it doesn’t end the way anyone thinks it would, bringing an ending that would make M. Night Shyamalan giggle like a school girl.
So what makes Demon Theory different? Plenty. Think of recent horror movies, so full of self-aware dialogue and pop-culture references that they drew groans from half the crowd and puzzled looks from the other half. Where this differs is that it serves as a sort of primer for anyone who didn’t get the references. Looking at the footnotes, one suddenly understands just what the hell is so funny about Michael Meyers wearing a yellow Star Trek uniform, or what’s so funny about a costumed geek effecting a British accent and saying that he “got better.” If you didn’t get the reference, don’t worry. The details are all in the footnotes. In addition, the little, everyday things in the lives of the characters are on painful display for all to see, explained in graphic detail by Jones.
Possibly the best way to read this book is to let the scenes unfold, visualizing them as if they were on a big screen. However, now the viewer has the director’s notes. Now he knows the meaning of all the jokes. Now he can see just how clever the writer was because every subtle nuance is explained, every joke detailed, every horrific bloody drop examined to its nth degree.
And, by the way, the story is terrifying. Despite the over-used plot line, the execution defies cliché by showing the pretenders how it’s done. Forget the teen slasher films of the 90’s, and no one really cares what happened last summer anymore. Jones spanks them all soundly and puts them to bed without supper in all of their pithy and overly verbose language. And he does it with style, guiding the reader along the twisting corridors of terror.
However, does the guide spoil the ride? The sad answer is that, occasionally, the very thing that makes this piece so much fun is also what tends to distract from it. The footnotes, while fascinating and hilarious in places, do tend to yank the reader out of the action. In several places, an obscure reference just couldn’t be allowed to slide, forcing the reader to come screeching to a halt while scanning the fine print for some sort of explanation. While it is good to have such explanations, the world of “intellectual horror” may still have a ways to go before it finds its happy medium of how many footnotes and where to put them. As it stands, this volume is chock-full of bizarre references, so much so that, at times, it is dizzying.
Still, this book is not for everyone. People looking for a straight-up read should probably look somewhere else. Those looking for something a little more postmodern, something that challenges what is the standard in literature, should look no further. Jones has created something not seen before, and that is no small accomplishment. What comes across is not only a chilling story, but also the wit and intelligence of Jones, leading the reader along on a guided tour of pop culture and extreme fear.
4 out of 5
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