“Horror fiction at its best is in the business of pushing back the barriers, or risking the absurd in order to reach the sublime.”–Ramsey Campbell (from the foreword of Alan Moore’s SAGA OF THE SWAMP THING, book 1)
I need to go back and amend my top 10 books of 2009 list and put Victor LaValle’s amazing and brilliant BIG MACHINE at number one. I mean, compare BIG MACHINE to the pile of steaming mediocrity of some of the ‘big’ books (big= media hype, buzz, and more buzz) I’ve been reading lately which feature lazy writing, slapdash characters, and…well, before I get sidetracked complaining about the overhyped and the supremely-mediocre, let me lavish big love on Victor’s book.
Some plot stuff: Ricky Rice is a middle-aged heroin addict and janitor at a bus station. One particularly disgusting morning he receives a mysterious letter with a bus ticket and the message: “You made promise in Cedar Rapids in 2002. Time to honor it.” Ricky goes, the bus drops in him the wilds of Vermont where he’s taken to a remote compound of cottages and a main library/building. There are other addicts and criminals there too. They comprise the “unlikely scholars.” A group of rag-tag paranormal investigators, searching for evidence or record of The Voice in daily newspapers. The Voice may or may not be divine. The Voice may or may not be something to be feared.
From there, cross country craziness ensues, with cults, serial killers, terrorist bombings, monsters (or are they?), creepy sewers and tunnels, and genuinely funny, smart, and human characters and dialogue.
Victor revels and rolls around in so many of the 80s big horror tropes and cliches, but he does it so smartly and effectively, with plot twists and characters’ pasts overlapping, intertwining, and muddying both perception and reality. Victor is brave and audacious enough to push toward the absurd, and then go sprinting right past it. There are scenes in this book that literally made me say, “No way,” out loud. I never do that.
The result is this wonderfully weird, funny, and genuinely creepy book. It’s about all our lives, the irrational hope of a voice and a plan being there to listen to and to guide us, and the fear that if we could actually listen to it and understand it, it still would sound like the white noise of our everyday existence: cruel and totally insane, but still, somehow, a little bit wonderful.
Victor gets bonus geek points from me for quoting from Carpenter’s “The Thing” in his epigraph and then thanking Bad Brains, Shirley Jackson, T E D Klein, Stephen King, and Ambrose Bierce in the acknowledgments.
Go. Read. This. Book. Now. Okay?