Published by Samhain Publishing
In the interest of full disclosure I admit that Adam Cesare is a friend of mine. He wasn’t, however, when I reviewed his 2011 novella Tribesmen (review) – a violent and nasty slice of cannibal carnage that I loved so much, I consider it to be one of the best pieces of horror fiction in recent memory. So, yes, you should know that the author and I are friends. But I hope you’ll trust me when I say that Video Night is a literary gorefest that deftly mixes heartfelt coming-of-age with superior splatter.
Set in the VHS heyday of 1988, it’s the story of two Long Island teenagers and their ongoing ritual of raiding video store shelves for a dose of the good ‘n gory. If you grew up in the age of video stores, then Billy and Tom are probably a lot like you and I. Renting a video wasn’t something to be rushed. You weighed your options carefully, not only considering the merit of eye-catching box art but hoping the contents inside were just as good. When we meet Billy and Tom in this story, they’re already us: They don’t just love horror, they know it intrinsically.
That puts us in their shoes pretty quickly. Video Night may sound like a cavalcade of simple nostalgia and obligatory movie references, but it’s not. A lesser writer might have been compelled to revel in homage, but Cesare instead creates his own malevolently memorable creatures. Sure, these things would be right at home in the oeuvres of John Carpenter and David Cronenberg, but they’re never derivative. The villains of this piece are alien parasites who invade our bodies and minds, transforming us into brain-dead puppets that serve their extraterrestrial whims. We struggle, of course, and that makes these “possessions” all the more unsettling.
The best thing about Video Night is its characters. Yes, there’s considerable gore from the get-go, but Cesare is more interested in using this invasion story as a metaphor for those slowly disintegrating childhood friendships. Billy and Tom might have had a lot in common once, but as they approach adulthood on markedly different paths, it becomes clear that their friendship is on borrowed time.
It happens to all of us at one point or another, and that’s where this novel gets the most mileage. Billy is thinking ahead to college while Tom seems to have embraced his reputation as a kid from literally the wrong side of the tracks. Their affinity for one another is palpable, but you know it can’t last. And what’s worse, Tom seems increasingly content to use these revered video night traditions as little more than a means of hooking up with his girlfriend. Blasphemy!
I tend to be very sensitive about pacing. Far too many writers are content to wallow in their own indulgences without regard for the story. Video Night is paced perfectly, toggling back and forth between creature feature and teen angst drama. The worlds eventually collide, but both sides of the coin are equally enjoyable from the start. Cesare moves the story at a really good clip, but he does this without sacrificing character depth and development. When the third act kicks in, Video Night already feels like a journey, and the fun’s just getting started. The book is set over the course of a week’s time and “clocks” in at 248 pages. I wouldn’t have minded another 100.
I’m always encouraging cinematic horror fans to take their attentions to the written word more often than they do. Genre publishers are a lot more allowable than most Hollywood studios, and so you’re getting a singular artist’s voice as opposed to the bullshit-by-committee nonsense that plagues a good chunk of modern filmmaking. Adam Cesare is a voice worth reading. Try the aforementioned Tribesmen, dig on Video Night or even roll the dice on his horror noir novella Bound by Jade. Whichever route you take will be a road well traveled.
I’m not sure Video Night quite tops Tribesmen for me, but it’s a seriously well-crafted slice of horror. It brings the gore without sacrificing emotional engagement. That’s not always the easiest thing to do for fresher-faced genre authors, but Cesare pulls it off with aplomb. Bring on the next book!
4 out of 5