Friday, February 06, 2009

REVIEW: Back in Black

Title: Back in Black
Author: Brett Williams
Genre: Fiction/Horror/Thriller
Price: $13.95
Publisher: Lulu
Reviewed By: Cheryl Anne Gardner

Very matter of fact in its attitude and very Sling blade in its narrative voice. I am not a big fan of dialect, even when Faulkner did it, but it works for the story. After all, our bad boy protagonist is a colored man from 1950’s Mississippi, escaped from hell, and seeking revenge on those who have wronged him. The story is very reminiscent of Boris Vian’s “I Spit on Your Graves.” Maybe a little too reminiscent, but without the groundbreaking plot. Don’t get me wrong, I really, really like the story … I just had a few issues.

Now, this title is billed as: “A story of ultimate revenge.” and “Hardcore Horror that is black as hell.” Nice play on words, and yes, it is a story of revenge. It is very raw in its ideas and graphic in its language, definitely not for the reader with easily offended sensibilities, but hardcore, not so much. Ellis’ American Psycho was hardcore, Bataille’s Story of the Eye was hardcore, and this doesn’t come close to what I would consider hardcore. We have the lynching and the appropriate backstory, there is a little black magic slipped in off the cuff, and the plot device has been done to death: Tyrone Biggs returns from hell fifty years later and his wife and family are long dead. He hasn’t gotten over the heinous crimes perpetrated against his family, and his mission in life now is to find the men who killed him and get his revenge. Yup, we get all that and the requisite convulsing headless chickens and a few slashed throats. Actually,that sums up the first half of the book.

The issue I had with the book has nothing to do with the story or the ideas or the style, my issue has everything to do with the delivery. We start out right smack in the middle of the action, which is good. The opening chapter is engaging, and you are wanting from the very first page. Our main character emerges from Hell, finding himself in a world he is not at all familiar with and finding to his pleasure that it seems to suit him some. To his surprise, he is treated cordially in a roadhouse, and later he is treated to “fuckin’ a white girl.” What more could he ask for? But the story structure takes a turn for the mundane from that point on. Our narrator says: “A black man can get kicked out of anyplace if he sets his mind to it.” I love that statement, and it should sum up the reading experience, but it does not.

My biggest concern is that I felt the backstory needed to be better integrated into the main narrative so that we get the true ebb and flow of life, the flashbacks and flash forwards, enough decadent details to tease us along, and even more importantly, the introspection and exposition we need in order to connect should be well balanced. We get so little of that that our main character seems nothing more than a caricature; all the characters are caricatures, which in turn, renders the violence gratuitous and impotent.

Secondly, for all the Hell and Demon hype, this book is actually just another period piece on the state of racism; it’s about hatred, reparation, and redemption of a sorts, and we have all read and seen this same story many many times. In the first hundred pages, the narrator’s time in hell is barely mentioned, and when it is, the imagery is pretty standard fair, nothing spectacular enough to engage the savvy horror reader, not to mention it was done in straight narrative, so emotional and visceral engagement is low as well. For the remainder of the book, that element disappears until the convenient ‘tie up the loose end’ at the very end of the book. Shame really, cause given its due, this would have been an edge over Vian’s Book. Biggs’ life as a black man fifty years ago was more torturous than the Hell portrayed here, so why even bother. It ended up being nothing more than a distraction.

The story has a promising blend of elements, but those fall short of being captivating because the narrative leans heavily on the cliché vengeance plot construct. The black magic and the escape from hell aspects are not fully actualized, and so they seem like afterthoughts to disguise an old story. I guess from the blurb, I was expecting something along the lines of Mississippi Burning meets Constantine. It has its moments, the zombie/monkey’s paw finale was a nice touch, but the lacklustre delivery couldn’t sustain those moments, most are predictable, and thusly, we have compromised momentum. The story is heart wrenching and one to be told … and told again, but I was hoping for a new voice and a new light. The ole hack and slash vengeance thing doesn’t quite work for me, and why does the Old Voodoo Crone have to cackle and look like the wicked witch of the west? Why? For me, I need visceral, psychological, and mystical … not to mention alittle less dry telling, a lot more intimate depth, and better imagery. I found the critical details to be spare; the intimacy restricted to the backstory, which is lumped all together in the middle of the book; and the pacing to be off. In a story this elaborate, those details are extremely important, in the right amount at the right moment, and I don’t think 200 pages was enough to do it properly.

Lastly on a stylistic note: the directlys and the I reckons got annoying after a while, so some editing might be in order to remove a bit of the stereotypical ethnicity. There are some other editing issues as well, including boundless clichés and repetitiveness, but all is easy enough to fix with a proper editorial pass by someone who knows what they are doing. I would say this is a fairly decent rough draft for what could be an awesome, edgy, and powerful horror story. The foundation is there, albeit a bit thin, but the technique needs work, and so does the cover. This story could easily be a full length and very engaging novel. I hope the author decides to step back and work it … I would. I think conceptually the story is worth it. Again, this is one of those promising stories where the edit/revision process wasn’t given the time it needed, and the story might have been rushed to print before it was really ready.


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