Ginger Nuts of Horror
So we’re back again in Cesare country, and this time we’re taking on Exponential, a novel that pays heartfelt tribute to the creature feature genre of horror movie, albeit with some nods to the literary tradition too.
For example, one of the really fun aspects of Exponential in the early chapters is what I think of as the ‘James Herbert’ structure (he may not have invented it, but The Rats is the first time I remember coming across it). This is where, roughly speaking, you are introduced to a new character at the start of each chapter, and either they make it to the end of that chapter… or they die, gruesomely. The pattern, typically, is not quite alternating, so you can never get 100% comfortable, but nonetheless, it allows the story to fall into a certain rhythm, and of course such an approach all but guarantees drama and good clean gruesome fun.
Please don’t misinterpret this highlighting of formula as a criticism, however. It’s a classic for a reason - it’s efficient, keeps the scares coming, and it’s fun to read. It also plays to Cesare’s formidable strengths, especially in the areas of quick characterisation. The author has what I’m starting to appreciate is a rare gift at sketching a character so effectively that within a few hundred words, you feel as though you know them. He’s so good at doing this, in fact, that any of the people you meet are plausible lead characters in their own right, making the will-they/won’t-they-make-it-to-the-end-of-the-chapter game really fun.
Fun too is the creature itself - as the title implies, something that eats and grows and eats some more. Cesare’s description of this process is glorious and gleeful, and I found it to be one of the highlights of the book - again, it builds on existing traditions in the genre, but the specifics felt original, to me.
Somewhere just before the halfway point, events pivot, and from there the rest of the story plays out in a different mode entirely. I have to admit to finding the pacing change a little jarring at first, alongside the subtle genre shift (or maybe sub-genre shift). That said, Cesare can write claustrophobic character work just as well as the more freewheeling sections - which is to say, very well indeed - and when the action does start to ramp up, it’s suitably impressive - Cesare takes full advantage of the unlimited effects budget that a novel enjoys, without ever losing sight of the characters that drive the narrative.
Overall, I enjoyed my time with Exponential. It wasn’t my favourite of Cesare’s work - that’s still a toss up between Tribesmen and The Summer Job, right now - and as I said, that mid-book shift in tone just didn’t quite land for me. That said, there’s still an awful lot to enjoy here, from memorable, vibrant characters, to exciting horror action set pieces and a genuinely original monster. If creature feature novels are your bag, I predict you’ll find this one to be a really enjoyable ride.
Can anything stop a creature that won't stop growing? Sam Taylor just wants a friend. Is that too much to ask? His only mistake is finding that friend in Felix, a lab mouse that Sam rescues from the top-secret facility where he works as a janitor. Shortly after his rescue, the mouse begins to change, to swell. There's something new growing underneath Felix's fur. Growing very fast. Holed up in a roadside bar, four survivors-a woman who's lost everything, her drug dealer, a tribal police officer, and a professional gambler-are all that stand between the rampaging beast and the city of Las Vegas. But as the monster keeps growing-and eating-how long until it's able to topple the walls protecting them?