Monday, July 22, 2013

28 Teeth of Rage

I'm usually suspicious of reviews and blurbs that say "In the tradition of..." and "If you like that, you'll love this," but while reading Ennis Drake's short novel 28 Teeth of Rage, I found myself thinking that it felt like a wild hybrid of several classic and contemporary talents. There are echoes of and parallels to writers from Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard to Stephen King and Laird Barron. But that doesn't mean Drake's work is unoriginal, a mere pastiche. It has a rollicking energy all its own. At times, perhaps, that energy teeters on the verge of the ridiculous; there are structural issues, and the variety of modes in which the novel attempts to work simultaneously will be too much for the sensibilities of some readers. But if approached in the right spirit, 28 Teeth of Rage is a heck of a ride.

It's the story of Ernest Riley, a homicide detective, and Strom Wheldon, an Iraq War veteran who lost his legs to an IED. Riley is investigating a very violent crime, and what he has to go on are a tape-recorded message from Strom and the journal of Strom's wife, Jodi. But what exactly has happened to the Wheldons? What's up with the saw Strom was using to remodel the house? And what do a Civil War general and a legendary tribe of vicious Indians have to do with any of it? You'll find out... and pretty quickly too.

The great virtue and greatest drawback of 28 Teeth of Rage is that it's a short novel. There's a lot going on here, from the mysterious natives and blighted mansions of Southern horror to the visceral grossness of contemporary pulp to the bizarre cosmic landscapes of the Lovecraftian tradition to the human darkness of psychological horror-- and yet it all fits into less than 150 pages. That gives the book an undeniable sense of momentum; I read the second half in a white heat. At times, as I hinted above, the emphasis on psychological quirks and even the tone of the prose are reminiscent of Stephen King, but King would need at least three times the pagecount to tell this story, and much of its effect would be lost in the bloat. I do suspect, however, that while a Stephen King version of 28 Teeth of Rage would be way too long, the Ennis Drake version may be a little too short. While Riley's distinctive personality and dilemma are established immediately, Strom and Jodi never quite rise above the tropes of troubled veteran and concerned but uncertain wife. A slower build-up of their characters might have allowed for more depth, enhancing the genuinely dark themes Strom's capacity for violence suggests, and making the moment where events take a darker turn that much more meaningful. As it is, the plot shifts into high gear so suddenly that the impact of that particular development is lost.

My other niggle is that the way the parallel stories play out doesn't quite gel. Riley is, after that great introduction, relegated for too long to sitting and listening to/reading the Wheldons' accounts, dissipating the reader's connection to the character. It doesn't help that those epistolary accounts are themselves strained. The journal is so rarely used that it seems pointless except as an expository device, while the tape, which starts as a reasonable approximation of how Strom might express himself under those circumstances, almost immediately shifts into polished first-person prose that nobody would come up with spontaneously. It might have been better to abandon those devices and simply use Strom as a narrator in alternate chapters, allowing Riley to take investigative action, not simply soak up the plot.

But whatever structural flaws may present themselves in the first half of the novel are overshadowed by the skill with which the second half is carried out. It's not just that Drake combines several different varieties of horror-- it's that he's good at all of them. He knows how to render physical violence stomach-twistingly unpleasant but not crude or exploitative; he knows how to tap into the sense of place that renders Southern horror atmospheric if often politically incorrect; he knows how to capture the sense of alienating vastness that makes cosmicism powerful. The prose has the narrative exuberance of pulp and the polish of serious fiction. Some readers, I'm sure, won't like the overlap. They won't be able to take seriously a novel that includes not only this sentence: "Its shadow fell across the golden, sun-washed sand like spilled oil; the totem itself seemed too hideous to belong in this bright, still place; its images an unnatural tangle of angular sculpture-- disembodied legs and arms and demonic faces that spiraled toward the bloated pinnacle figure: a centipede, its thousand legs not insectan, but human"; but also this one: "The ball of shot exploded from the center of the first Indian's chest in a cloud of fractured bone, sizzling hunks of heart, gore and gristle." (Not to mention this one: "The sow is mine... and I will butcher her like the bitch-pig she is!") But if you like ambitious horror that works in several different registers at once, and don't mind occasional failures of reach vs. grasp, 28 Teeth of Rage is a book not to be missed.

The author supplied a review copy of this book.

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