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Edward Lee, The Backwoods
It is always fascinating to watch an author's growth over a period of time. So far, this is only the fourth Ed Lee novel I've read, but already I have noticed a marked improvement in the quality of his writing. He no longer seems to feel it necessary to pack every page with gratuitous sex and violence (don't get me wrong -- there's plenty of both to be had in The Backwoods, just not on every page), but now takes his time unspooling his characters' lives and personalities so that we care about them (or justifiably hate them) before they die horribly.
Just like Flesh Gothic was Lee's version of the haunted house story, The Backwoods is his version of the homecoming (a theme Tom Piccirilli has explored to great effect) and his self-stated attempt to redefine the "redneck mythos."
Successful Washington, D.C., lawyer (she just made partner) Patricia White is returning home to Agan's Point, Virginia, out of respect for her sister Judy, whose husband Dwayne's funeral is taking place (though it seems everyone in town but Judy knew what an awful guy Dwayne really was). The trouble is, home doesn't feel much like home to Patricia. Something horrible happened to her in nearby Bowen's Field and returning to southern Virginia dredges all that up every time she comes back.
But it's her sister, and that's what sisters do. Judy runs the local blue-crab trapping company, and most of her employees consist of Squatters, a communal people who all have jet black hair (even the ancient patriarch, Everd Stanherd) and women who develop early and well (it is an Ed Lee novel, after all, what did you expect?).
But some of the Squatters are beginning to disappear mysteriously, and once Patricia arrives, more disappearances (and murders) begin occurring in rapid succession. Rumors fly that Dwayne's "undetermined and curious" death may have been just the beginning of a series of interlinked oddball deaths. Questions abound: Why is the location of Patricia's trauma resulting in an unexplained burst of sexual feelings? Why is a local developer so interested in getting Judy to sell off her land? Why are so many of the presumed-teetotalling Squatters getting involved in crystal methamphetamine? And what the hell does "wenden" mean?
To his credit, Lee doesn't pull out all the stops in The Backwoods, leaving a bit to the reader's imagination this time around. It's probably still not something your grandma would like, but it feels less like "hardcore horror" and more like just a damned good read. Lee's signature style shines through, along with his focus on the importance of fully describing a setting -- just with a little more class than, say, Monstrosity or Messenger. (Certainly more than The Chosen, though that was the one that showed me what an "Edward Lee" novel was, and why Richard Laymon called him "the living legend of literary mayhem.") The supernatural aspect that pops up by way of explanation is rather unsatisfying, but it does lead to a surprisingly effective finish. If this pattern keeps up, I'll be very interested to see what Lee comes up with next.
Edward Lee, Messenger
The re-opening of the west branch of the Danelleton, Florida, post office is the unexpected catalyst of a string of mass murders committed by postal employees. Branch postmaster Jane Ryan is dumbfounded as one after the other of her employees commits brutal murder and suicide over a period of days. In addition to her precipitous decrease in staff (and you thought the mail was slow already!), she has to deal with her two kids and keeping her burgeoning romance with the local police chief a secret.
Messenger starts out like your average Edward Lee novel: he gets right into lots of lovingly-described sex and violence. The devil's right-hand man (the "messenger") is apparently possessing the local postal workers, transmitting himself from one to the other through vivid and frenzied sexual contact. This book brings to Earth the Hell Lee so wonderfully imagined in his breakthrough pair of "Infernal" novels (City Infernal and Infernal Angel).
Maybe I'm just getting used to it, but Messenger seems to be considerably less bathed in grue than Lee's earlier work. In fact, about midway, it turns into a semblance of a police procedural (a genre in which Lee has dabbled before, co-writing Dahmer's Not Dead with Elizabeth Steffen). In this section of the book, the investigation into the murders becomes the focus, with the pace slowing slightly due to the introduction of the mostly-expository expert in demonology and tabloid-TV celebrity Alexander Dhevic. Dhevic knows a little more than he's saying about some events that happened twenty years ago and their connection to the present massacres.
Lee's fans will not be disappointed, however, because the investigation scenes only enhance the disturbing bits once they return; the whole book is peppered with plenty of set pieces where the author's sick creativity is allowed to blossom, thinking up more and more disturbing ways for people to die. The signature Lee dark humor is here, too. After all, who makes better messengers of evil than those who deliver messages every day? Of course, there's not a lot of character development here; no one really seems to "grow" or "discover themselves" in these pages (although they do seem to be overly interested in fulfilling their destinies). But then we don't go to Lee for characters who mull over their lot in life and write depressing poetry, do we? It's all about the action, and Lee offers up plenty of that in Messenger.
Edward Lee, Monstrosity
You have to admire a man who can go from writing about the most wonderful things happening to one woman to writing about the most horrible things happening to another, giving both events equal importance. And that's exactly what Edward Lee does for the first hundred pages of Monstrosity.
When Clare Prentiss was raped while serving in the Air Force, an assumed conspiracy found her on the wrong end of a dishonorable discharge, making her virtually unemployable. reduced to testing deodorants for food money, her immediate life goal was merely to build up enough protein to be able to move up to selling her plasma. While walking around in the hot sun for the sake of the test, she is offered the job of her life: head of security at a cancer research clinic located on half of a natural reserve. Free housing, a free SUV, and all the gourmet coffee she can drink.
But if the job is so great, what happened to the three-person security staff that left all together without giving their notice? And what's going on in B-Wing that is so important that it is better protected than the heavily-opium-derived pharmaceutical supply? Clare doesn't even know how close she is to reliving the past that still haunts her dreams.
If Edward Lee offers something that's better than it should be, watch out, because a lot of people are going to die, gruesomely, and lovingly depicted in Lee's garish yet smooth prose. He always rides the line of bad taste, yet seems to know just when to back off and avoid the descent into unintentional humor (unlike the recent output of Michael Slade). That he doesn't rely on overkill to get his point across in Monstrosity shows how Lee's writing has matured in the ten years since writing The Chosen, the only other work I had read of his. In a genre notorious for seemingly inadvertent misogyny, he manages to create female characters who know their own minds, and even offers up a little social commentary regarding the military's treatment of the environment.
However, one downside of having that book fresh in my memory was that it was patently obvious the two share a similar basic setup: a woman's life is turned upside down and she is then, out of the blue, offered the job of her dreams. (The Chosen's Vera Abbot becomes the manager of an exclusive hotel restaurant after she finding her fiancee with two other women.) A couple of other flaws dampen the proceedings -- one being the cliched mouthy villain who, if he had a therapist, wouldn't need to explain his motivations to his victims, and the other being that a major plot thread isn't tied up satisfactorily.
But despite these surface shortcomings, even at nearly 400 pages, Monstrosity is a blazing fast read, a real rip-snorter. The author doesn't allow the pace to flag (even during the "quieter" scenes, relatively speaking), and the inimitable Lee charm is present on every page, making it a must-read for fans.
Edward Lee, The Chosen
What an awful cover! I can't imagine who Pinnacle thought the market was for Edward Lee's The Chosen to have picked such a lurid picture and tagline -- certainly not discerning horror aficionados. Lucky for me (and, in turn, for you), several other things were working against that first impression to get me to actually buy it. First, I had heard of Edward Lee through his novels -- City Infernal, its sequel Infernal Angel, and the recent Messenger -- and I knew of his reputation. More importantly, however, this book was on the clearance table for $3.99 (of course, the blurb on the back from Cemetery Dance didn't hurt, either).
One or the other would not have done it, but the combination of the two found me leaving the bookstore with it while wondering to myself if I would ever have the nerve to read it in public (I did, as it turns out, just carefully hiding the cover from passers-by). Lurid covers on crime novels often, surprisingly, designate high quality (see, for example, the Hard Case Crime series), but on a horror novel, it usually represents the worst in the genre. (The same publisher did much better by Bentley Little's The Summoning.) Fortunately, there is a truly solid scarefest in these accompanying pages; one that doesn't skimp on character or carnage.
Reputed restaurant manager Vera Abbot -- through a series of unexpected events -- takes a job managing the restaurant side of the newly opened The Inn. It is all she ever dreamed of: triple her former salary, carte blanche on spending for staff and supplies, and free room and board at the suite of her choice. Oh, sure, The Inn used to be Wroxton Hall, an asylum where noted atrocities took place, but this doesn't bother Vera.
At least not until the dreams start, and other questions need answering: Why does the room service kitchen always outperform the restaurant, and why does the owner not seem to care? What are the strange noises coming from the supposedly-empty second-floor suites? And what's up with the surly, mute housekeeping staff? Meanwhile, a pair of fetishistic hedonists named Zyra and Lemi spend their time picking up swinging couples and having their way with them. Sex and violence are inextricably intertwined, as unsuspecting victims are pleasured (usually without their consent) and killed (always without their consent) with unflinching frequency.
Edward Lee is a master of extreme erotic horror. The Chosen pulls no punches and is not likely to be appropriate for reading at mealtimes. Luckily, character is at least as important to the author as blood flow. Sure he could have written a novel full of little more than carnage, but that wouldn't be nearly as interesting as getting to know the character before they're snuffed (and that includes nearly everyone). In particular, Vera's kitchen staff -- waitress Donna, chef Dan B., and dishwasher Lee (the author's doppelganger -- Edward Lee worked as a dishwasher at age 17) -- are given a lot of page time. The usually coarse Lee is even given an especially tender storyline, complete with "love interest."
Of course, nothing is ever as it seems and, in fact, one of the best choices the author made in The Chosen is that we know something is going on at The Inn, but that we don't have a clue what is going on until the final fifty pages. Having two of the characters turn out to be the same person was a special touch of genius. This isn't necessarily the kind of stuff I like to read all the time, but when you've got a taste for it, you can't do much better.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)