Please enjoy this review of The Complex, by Brian Keene. It is part of my Is That an Old Book? review series. There are a few spoilers, so if you’re like me and prefer to read reviews after reading the book, please be advised.
There are moments when we want to give disclaimers about expectations, when we want to say, “you may assume, it’s like this, but really it’s like this.” We hear lines like, “Oh, sure he’s a heavyweight champion who smashed a guy’s skull to splinters, but really he’s a teddy bear, no really…” I’ve heard Stephen King’s writing described this way when folks say things like, “Did you know he wrote The Shawshank Redemption and Stand by Me? It’s not all about blood and gore.”
To be fair, it shouldn’t be—most virtuosic artists possess depth and range. For example, besides A Game of Thrones, George R. R. Martin has also written the children’s book The Ice Dragon. Old school black metal vocalist Gaahl of Gorgoroth is also a vocalist for Wardruna, a group that plays traditional Scandinavian music. High quality artists tend to branch out. Brian Keene is no exception. Besides his seminal horror work The Rising, Keene has written stories with a wide variety of themes, along with non-fiction and essays. Many of his short stories that are dubbed ‘horror’ could arguably be considered thrillers (I’m thinking of I Sing a New Psalm from the Dark Faith anthology) or even magic realism (I’m thinking of The Last Things To Go, co-written with Mary San Giovanni, from anthology The Library of the Dead).
Here we are discussing his recent novella The Complex (Deadite Press, 2016), a visceral tale that combines brutal murder with social irony. It’s a novella that lets loose with heavy doses of flesh, blood, and the pure Cro-Magnon beauty of crude weapons, while at the same time offering subtly complex symbols and a touch of tasteful social commentary.
The story kicks-off by introducing an eclectic mix of residents living in a somewhat run-down, pre-fab apartment complex. When an attack of naked homicidal lunatics ensues, these neighbors must band together to thwart the onslaught. Among them are a writer teetering on the brink of suicide, an aged Vietnam vet wrestling demons of his past, a widowed cat lady mournful for her husband yet handy with his revolver, a young man who is becoming a young woman, a single mom and son, a pair of slightly dorky yet fairly skilled and ruthless young thugs, and a serial killer who may or may not be a hero.
As ever with Keene’s fast-paced horror novels, the reader can enjoy his dexterity in character development intertwined with the violent action. I’ve always considered this dynamic to be one of his most effective stylistic traits. Somehow he can believably weave a character’s history—such as memories of time suppressing a riot, or moments grieving for a relationship—into scenes where crazies are scratching through walls and reaching for their victims’ throats. While all quality novelists put this technique to use to some degree, I would say few can evoke as much depth in such a short narrative. Keene neither slows the pace down with info-dumping, nor does he make the prose sound hurried by using phrasing that is too condensed.
The story’s arc proceeds to detail what amounts to a running firefight (indeed, what a good number of these neighbors do have in common is pistol ownership). The leader of the lunatics is a gigantic naked fat man with a Hello Kitty tattoo on his torso dubbed “Tick-Tock” because of the way his skull snaps back and forth on his neck. The character recalls Urban Gothic’s Noigel in his sheer size and mercilessness.
I encourage anyone who feels like they need a break from slow-tempo stories and miss hard-rocking horror to pick up The Complex and enjoy the ride. For though I am touting its speed and its violence, let it not be said that Keene achieves this by sacrificing subtlety. Rather, the story uses symbolism to great effect. The well-woven interplay of violence and vulnerability, of weaponry and nakedness, serves to create an tension that crescendos in how a group of very disparate individuals attempt to overcome their differences and work together. In its tightly rendered conclusion, the physical imagery mirrors the climactic action in a manner that offers an ironic statement about mob mentalities and what it really means to see someone’s true identity.
The Complex also gives a unique perspective when it comes to world-building. Late Twenteith-Century critic Rosemary Jackson, in her book Fantasy, the Literature of Subversion, offered categories for fantasy stories that drew a difference between stories of the “marvellous” that take place in far-away magical lands (think Star Wars and Lord of the Rings), and the “fantastic”, where fantasy elements are stitched though realistic descriptions of everyday life (such as, to use Jackson’s example, Kafka’s The Metamorphosis). While Keene’s work certainly fits into the latter, I would say that even among such writers there are categories of difference that flavor the styles. For example, while H.P. Lovecraft’s works contain overlapping characters and mythological figures, I would place him higher on the “reveal” scale—a story like The Thing on the Doorstep reveals, by the end, what’s really going on and why, with old Ephraim Waite’s motive of immortality lying at the root. In The Complex, as well as other works such as the aforementioned Urban Gothic, Keene steps back from this level of “reveal”—the motives remain blurrier, with hints and speculation adding to the tension. I would say this kind of world building is like the difference between an overtly sweet liquor like Jack Fire with its cinnamon assault, and a whiskey like Knob Creek, that has subtle, maple notes in its finish. While it is true that a work like The Rising does have what I would call a higher “reveal” factor when it comes to the origins of the zombies, overall I would say that works like The Complex, with plentiful action offset by symbolic subtlety and a delicate use of the “reveal”, can keep Keene’s work exciting and insightful for what I hope are many great books to come.
Carl R. Moore is the author of Slash of Crimson and Other Tales, forthcoming in July, 2017, with Seventh Star Press. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.