Ginger Nuts of Horror
Exploring The Labyrinth
In this series, I will be reading every Brian Keene book that has been published (and is still available in print), and then producing an essay on it. With the exception of Girl On The Glider, these essays will be based upon a first read of the books concerned. The article will assume you’ve read the book, and you should expect MASSIVE spoilers.
I hope you enjoy my voyage of discovery.
Prologue: Clickers - J.F.Gonzalez & Mark Williams
It feels oddly appropriate that my first steps into the labyrinth would seem, on the surface, to be a wrong turn. Clickers was, after all, not written by Brian Keene, so starting a new discovery/career retrospective here, rather than with The Rising, could seem, at the very least, a little obtuse.
But it makes perfect sense. Honest.
See, while Keene may not have written any part of this novel, he did subsequently go on to write three Clickers titles with Gonzalez, including one that crossed over into the literary universe of The Rising. In that sense, then, Clickers is a hugely important strand in Keene’s career, so it makes sense to go back to ground zero, and see what came before - not only to help make sense of what follows, but also to try and tease out what influence Keene had on the Clickers series - and indeed what influence Gonzalez may have had on Keene, given how close the two were as friends and contemporaries.
Throughout this series, I’ll also be checking in with Jim Mcleod, Gingernuts proprietor and lifelong Keene fan, to get his perspective as a more experienced fan. He had this to say about Clickers -
“Clickers is the bastard offspring of Guy N Smith and HP Lovecraft. Brutal, graphic, and exciting, with a hidden depth lurking beneath it’s bloodsoaked waters.”
I read the most recent Kindle edition of the book, which has an additional Foreword written in 2010, over a decade after the initial publication date. I mention this because said foreword mentions this is the 6th edition of the book, and that one of the things this edition does is fix some earlier editorial and formatting issues that had apparently plagued prior editions.
And I’m afraid that brings me to one more order of business before I get into the essay proper, and that’s the somewhat vexed subject of criticism.
Let’s start here: I am not a critic, and this is not a series of critical reviews. I am a writer, and I am a genre fan. I don’t dislike critics, or criticism - in point of fact, I actually think that criticism is an art form unto itself (and yes, there are ‘bad’ critics, just like there are ‘bad’ novelists or storytellers, and ‘bad’ can apply in the moral sense, or in the sense of ‘bad at their job’, or both - but still). It’s just not what I do, as neither my enthusiasms or my talents lie in that direction.
That’s not to say I don’t have critical faculties, or that I engage with creative work without any thought or attention to craft, or that I can’t see flaws even in work I admire, enjoy, or love. It’s more to say that, most times, I’m writing from a place of enthusiastic engagement, because that’s how I tend to feel about the work I enjoy, whether it’s music, movies or books. There’s plenty of folks out there who will try and sell you the snake oil of ‘dispassionate critical assessment’ (and some of them will be their own best customers, come to that) but I’m not one of them. Chances are, if I get to the end of a book (which is far from a foregone conclusion), I will have enjoyed the experience, and I’ll mainly want to talk about why.
Clickers is a pretty fine example of that. I fucking loved it.
The intro talks a lot about the pulp 50’s B-Movies and Guy N Smith/James Herbert influences, and they ain’t kidding. The structure is pure Rats-era Herbert, with chapters following the ‘lead’ characters interspersed with sections where you get to meet various interesting people, and then watch them get hideously killed. I point out the formula merely to highlight, not to sneer - it’s a classic for a reason, and one I fully intend to emulate myself some day, in a future work. Both the characters and the deaths are vivid and well drawn. The characters especially, actually. Rick Sychek certainly appears to be a hilariously on-the-nose authorial insert, given his status as a midlist horror author on the way up, heading to a remote seaside town in Maine to get that difficult fourth novel put away, but the guy absolutely crackles on the page - smart, charismatic, and just the right side of charmingly roguish, he’s a pleasure to hang out with. Similarly, the small town sheriff with a racist stick up his butt (and, it transpires, almost certainly a dose of PTSD from his ‘Nam service), his essentially decent but slightly hapless deputy, the town doctor - there isn’t a character in this book that doesn’t feel fleshed out, alive, and with their own interiority that brings them to life, from the lead on down to the one-chapter victims. It’s a huge strength of the book as a whole.
Similarly, Jack Ripley - Ripper to his fans, of course - who runs the local comic shop is a delight - a man with a cult underground comic career that he passed over to run a comic shop in a small town on the edge of the country. The lengthy scene where the two men meet, and discover a mutual fandom, really should be cheesy and overindulgent - and certainly the narrative slams to a halt for a dozen pages or more as they discover their mutual fandom, and then talk about their career paths and the state of the creative industries.
But honestly, it was one of the highlights of the book, for me. There’s an incredible authenticity of the sequence, the dialogue - as the reader, I felt like I was getting to listen in to two working artists in a private conversation, and the passion and pragmatism really rang true. It’s not a million miles away from the experience of listening to Keene’s podcast, as I think of it - especially the interviews conducted at crowded conventions or noisy hotel rooms, where the audio challenges add to that atmospheric sense of, in some sense, actually being there.
It’s the quality I most look for in writing, I realise - the one I most value: that feeling of falling into the page, being swept along by events. And Clickers delivers that in spades.
It manages this in spite of some occasional rough edges in the prose. There’s a tendency to word repetition in places, and the odd clumsily constructed sentence. The pacing is mostly superb, but there were also a couple of sequences (especially once the main event started and the Clickers were marching up Main Street, spitting acid and chowing down on half the town) that for me dragged a bit - perhaps especially the moment of exposition, though I suppose that’s usually the least convincing moment of any B-Movie, almost by definition.
Despite that, I found the book for the most part to be a lethally quick read, a gleeful headrush of horror set pieces populated by vividly drawn characters that feel in many ways like broad stroke stock characters, yet all of whom come to life on the page, with a combination of deft personal flourishes and authentic dialogue.
And then, of course, there are the Clickers.
Somewhere between a crab and a lobster, three feet long with foot long claws whose snapping gives them their titular name. Oh, and they have stingers, which inject what appears to be fantastically corrosive acid into anyone unlucky enough to get into striking distance (spoilers: that turns out to be rather a lot of people). And of course, there’s thousands of them, apparently driven from whatever hellish sea depths they usually inhabit by some freakish 100 year storm. God, they’re fucking brilliant. Seriously. Classic critter feature monsters - basically recognizable, but outsized, twisted, more deadly. Add in speed, viciousness and weight of numbers, they’re exactly the kind of implacable, unstoppable, unreasoning opponent you want for this kind of tale. The venom is a particularly brilliant touch, both upping the danger stakes, and providing some superb gross out splatter moments, as stomachs swell and explode, and the clickers move in to eat the steaming bubbling organs from the still screaming victims.
And there’s a lovely change up a little way after the halfway point, when you discover the reason the clickers have been driven to the shore line. Because the Old Ones are coming.
So I guess we also need to talk about Lovecraft.
I’ll be brief, as I’m both woefully under qualified, and have not a single original thought on either the man or his work (I’ve got a complete works on my Kindle, and I’m currently at the 23% mark, having just finished The Rats In The Walls - so I wasn’t kidding about underqualified). I have, however, read enough, and followed enough of the recent debate, to know that there will be a subset of Lovecraft fandom that must feel personally insulted and aggrieved at the usage of Lovecraft iconography in such a brazenly pulp environment as this novel. I imagine it might feel sacrilegious, even.
I laughed like a goddamn drain.
It’s so delightfully, deliriously punk rock, that’s all - to take creatures from the cosmic horror, creatures where, in the source material, their horror comes from their indescribability, their unknown qualities, their barely-glimpsed-through-mist-monstrosity… and then fling them into a garish, technicolor splatterfest, and let the violent disemboweling and beheadings commence! It’s gleeful, irreverent… and yet, there’s sincere love here, too, for both the source material, and for the genre the Old Ones stride into. The way that translates is that they are utterly badass, cutting a bloody swathe through the now battle-hardened townsfolk that endured the initial clicker surge, in the process upping the stakes and energy as the book careers towards it’s conclusion. It’s a bonkers, gonzo idea, and it shouldn't work, and it works so well I’m grinning right now, thinking about it.
I guess we should talk about that ending, given the wider scope of this project (and I wasn’t kidding about the spoiler warning up top, so if you don’t want the entire thing ruined, as well as The Rising and City of the Dead, and you haven’t read all of them yet, last chance to bug out and unfuck that).
Because there are undeniable echoes, with both The Rising and City of the Dead. In both cases, there’s a promise made to a kid, a vow of protection - and ultimately, in both Clickers and Keene’s stories, that promise fails. In Clickers, it’s an especially brutal and graphic moment, and for me it cut through, shocking me out of the shlock horror glee of the scenes of carnage by breaking one of the taboos that even horror won’t often cross - killing a kid. I’m not sure the emotional fallout for the characters played out as deeply as it could have done - to be honest, it feels like the narrative ran out of road before that could really happen - but still it’s a hell of a moment, and a reminder that the authors really aren’t pissing about. I hadn’t expected an emotional shock to land that late in the book, and the fuckers got me good - it was a real rug-from-under moment.
So. That was my Clickers experience. I really cannot emphasise enough how much damn fun I had. The pages flew by, and I was left with a series of vivid portraits of characters, and some moments of visceral, visual horror that will linger long. I haven’t gone into a lot of detail here, but there’s some amazing horror set pieces here - the clickers in the powerstation leaps to mind, as does the initial attack on the kid (and for that matter, that batshit prologue that sinks an entire fishing vessel). Yes, the prose is unpolished in parts, but there are times when that matters and times when it doesn’t. When it betrays a deeper lack of understanding of the form, when it’s symptomatic of a wider failure to grasp the fundamentals of storytelling, it can be a dealbreaker.
Here, it’s entirely besides the point. Because this is a ferocious, bloody, and gleeful expression of imagination, a joyous love note to the B-Movie and the paperback nasties of the 70’s and 80’s.
Just like it said it was in the intro. These guys knew exactly what they were doing,and they delivered as advertised. With glee, passion, and love. And every ounce of that made it onto the page.
This was so much goddamn fun.
I can’t wait for the sequel.