The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World
by Brian Allen Carr
Lazy Fascist Press, May 2014
128 pages / $9.95 Buy from Amazon
Brian Allen Carr’s The Last Horror Novel in the History of the World is a bewildering book—a work of low-key madness. It’s a novel that moves across literary modes—from horror, to gritty realism, to psychological study—without ever quite embodying any one. In his introduction to the novel, Tom Williams compares the novel’s genre-confounding qualities to the border between Mexico and Texas, where Carr lives: “the border that exists between the fiction deemed as literary and that deemed as genre is far better policed and regulated than the border between Mexico and Texas.” You, like me, might be skeptical of such a claim—if anything, the Jonathan Lethems and Gillian Flynns of the world seem to suggest that the border between literary fiction and genre fiction has worked out a pretty decent immigration system—but Williams’ point still resonates: Carr’s novel is difficult to categorize. If anything, the idea of just one border is too reductive here: The Last Horror Novel feels, perhaps, like a dispatch from the four corners of the American Southwest, with Carr standing upon the intersection, dipping his foot into each of the states for only a second at a time.
Carr’s novel takes place in the evocatively named Scrape, Texas. Seriously, you know exactly what this town is like without me—or Carr, for that matter—describing an inch of it. Scrape is a “blink of crummy buildings, wooden households—the harsh-hearted look of them, like a thing that’s born old.” In this town, young and old alike seem stranded. The denizens drink beers, sleep with one another, and antagonize other races. A young woman like Mindy was lucky enough to get north to Austin for college to engage in artistic revelry, attending screenings at the cinema and falling in love with art films, but life blew her back like dust to Scrape. She and a handful of other characters—including racist Burt; his buddy, Manny; Tyler, the victim of Burt’s racism; jerk-off Tim Bittles, with his dick pics and “cell phone titties;” Teddy and Scarlett, who spend the novel either pre- or post-fucking; Blue Parson and Rob Cooder, who just want to drink beer all day; and convenience store clerk Tessa—wander through the town, working, killing time, and making secret their bouts of herpes.
A great boom—massive, shattering—changes this, and “newscasts show static.” Burt says, “Something’s off,” and he isn’t kidding: for reasons Carr never attempts to explain, horrors have been unleashed upon the town of Scrape. First, there is La Llorona, “the Weeping Woman,” a ghost that gathers replacements for the children she drowned. Then, there is the “fuzzy hand, the Devil’s hand, the black hand, the hand of Horta,” which brings violence and death to the world of the living. In short, the town of Scrape—full of small town American decadence—is assaulted by the myths of Mexican culture. And the residents of Scrape, in true American fashion, respond by fetching their guns and shooting without thinking.
This is a “genre novel,” yes, but not in the way most mainstream readers would expect. Instead, it’s a “genre novel” in a way that most literary/Alt-Lit readers (and readers of HTMLGIANT, certainly) will be comfortable with. By that I mean, it fucks shit up enough to be interesting, but doesn’t delve deeply enough into genre to be deemed boring. Early in The Last Horror Novel, Carr signals his generic divide while describing Scrape as being positioned between “two legitimate cities”: Corpus Christi and Houston. Carr’s novel, therefore, occupies an illegitimate space—not too different, really, from the so-called “illegitimate” space that genre fiction occupies. For instance, Carr flirts with one of the great tropes of the Victorian gothic: the notion of the “gentlemen’s club,” i.e., men of science, sitting around, discussing things that science cannot explain. Gothic tales tend to rely upon the unutterable: how, after all, to describe the uncanny happenings of the world? In this sense, Carr’s novel feels like old-fashioned horror: his characters huddle, attempting to explain the unexplainable. A rickety tree house becomes Carr’s version of the “gentlemen’s club.”
This is a short novel, and Carr’s style is elliptical and spare. A recent work of fiction like Katherine Faw Morris’ Young God comes to mind, though Carr is far more playful. Maybe the stripped down prose of Brautigan is the more apt analogue, and Carr’s cultural commentary seems to operate a bit like Brautigan’s: he embodies a milieu so fully that he winds up satirizing it without expending a single extra breath. Many of his chapters are just a few paragraphs, and the book’s already trim 121 pages contain a lot of white space. Within this small frame, Carr moves through literary modes that go beyond genre, from the dirty realism of Scrape, to a section labeled “Thoughts” that becomes psychologically probing and revealing in a way that nothing else in the book is. Then, in this novel of jagged edges, there’s an additional piece: a first-person voice that floats through the text—something between Jeffrey Eugenides’ The Virgin Suicides and Joan Chase’s During the Reign of the Queen of Persia, though lacking either novel’s coherence.
Does all of this add up? No. Is it supposed to, or does it need to? On those points, I’m less certain. The end of The Last Horror Novel sort of dissolves, crumbling in the reader’s hand—but then, when unspeakable horror is unleashed onto the world, what other possible ending is there aside from gradual dissolution? This fatalism makes Carr’s novel feel emotionally muted but brief enough for this not to matter; it is, after all, closer to a long short story or novella than anything else, and as a result, Carr works out one idea and produces interesting results. It may not seek emotional complexity, but it’s effective in its portrait of characters that think themselves at a dead end. Ultimately, Carr is ingenious in externalizing this existential angst by deploying the conventions of a genre. There’s an apocalypse coming to Scrape, Texas, and Carr seems to be saying, “You think your life’s at a dead end? You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Benjamin Rybeck is events coordinator at Brazos Bookstore in Houston. He writes for Kirkus Reviews, and his work also appears or is forthcoming in Electric Literature’s The Outlet, Ninth Letter, PANK, The Rumpus, The Seattle Review, and elsewhere. His fiction has received honorable mention in The Best American Nonrequired Reading and The Pushcart Prize Anthology, and he is currently seeking an agent and/or publisher for a novel and a short story collection.
June 16th, 2014 / 10:00 am
Brian Allen Carr, from Texas, is awesome. Somebody gave his book Short Bus a 1-star review at Amazon, but he says it’s a crappy review. So he’s doing a “Lone Star” contest: write the best 1-star review of the book by the end of February, and he’ll give you all three of his books, including the newest, Edie and the Low-Hung Hands (Small Doggies Press).
Sometimes in my dreams I am blessed with the true-length arms of a man, and I am proud of my arms, and sun shines upon them. I’m also usually younger. My face is taut, my teeth well lined, my hair is black as ever it was, and there is fidget in my step, because I am youth with potential. There is no ache in my hips. No murders replay in imagination.
When I’m awake I catch a smell, and there’s a throat slit in mental vision. A gut split. My blade through a spine. The first kill was in self-defense. A young friend of Welder’s taunted me toward duel. He gaped at my arms. Hollered guttural things. Kicked dirt in my face. Drew his sword.
“You’re hideous,” he said “And now I’ll disappear you.”
I might have had my sword two years then. I had taken it into a thicket of mesquite in the park near the river, and I had practiced chipping at branches, slashing low limbs free from the trees, but I had never had anything come at me in turn. My father used to work with Welder on how a sword should be held, on how an enemy should be approached. They had names for the moves they made. One thing was called an appel. It wasn’t a move with a sword. They’d mash a foot on the ground to distract their opponents. In theory the opponents would hear the noise and their attention would draw away from the next move, and then they might lunge, holding their swords out and level with their shoulders, just shy of arm fully extended, and take a wide stride at their opponent, essentially stepping into a stab.
So much of how they fought was with their legs, but I didn’t care for their style. You have to stay loose on your feet, in my opinion. Less postured. Ready to move in all directions. There was so much rigidity in their methods. Or, maybe I’m lazy. I didn’t want to take the time to learn. I think, for a while, I just assumed that only the proud cared to get good at it. I was so angry at my arms and the world, my father, brother, and mother, that I sort of hoped to be bad. Perhaps someone would take offense at me and make me nothing—a sack of skin with bones and blood in it, less blood than needed, and no air in its lungs. But, somehow, I thrived. And when Welder’s friend drew his sword and stood stern postured with his blade at me and his face smart with rage, I heard his foot mash the floor, drew my short sword, stepped back, brushed his blade aside as he lunged, and drove my sword twice into his face. It split open in both spots, and blood covered his white skin in gushes, blood near black, and his eyes widened as he dropped to his knees, grabbed his face and began flailing. I hadn’t thought of them while it happened, but he had friends with him. I can’t remember how many, but they looked scared of me when they saw I’d bested their friend, and they didn’t know if they could go to him, to hold him as he bled out, but when I sheathed my sword, he fell face down, and one of them picked him up, turned him over, and laid him on his lap, telling him lies as he died. I think the boy was seventeen. He’s probably my favorite kill.
But in my dreams those moments often cease to be. There is music gently somewhere. Perhaps there is a party. It’s for me, and there is cake. Light, soft as lullabies, bleeds in from a window. Balloons hover. Candles are lit. People sing my name. I hold my arms above me. There is a ceiling, but my hands are far from it. There’s my mother, but her breath is just plain sweet, not Sweet- Jane sweet, and she holds me to her. Maybe she says, “You make your mother and father proud,” and maybe my father says, “You’re my favorite son,” and Welder says, “I wish I looked as much like Dad as you do,” and then perhaps Edie, the young Edie, the Edie of the first time ever I saw her, dances toward me shyly with her hands held behind her. “I brought you a present,” she tells me, “I picked it out special.” And she produces a small box, wrapped in paper with a bow, “I’ll open it later,” I tell her, “Right now we should dance.” And then the rest of them will disappear, the way dreamt things often do, and we’d be in a small space all our own, nobody in sight of us, and we’d hold each other and move with a music that would speak to our souls, and in unison, and with grace. We’d be together.
When given the choice, I mostly choose not to read literary realist fiction. I’ve been out of school for more than a year now, so I’m accustomed to having the choice. I read Brian Allen Carr’s collection Vampire Conditions anyway, and I loved it. I knew that I wanted to review the book, too, which meant that I would have to find a way to articulate why I loved it. There are two keys. First, Carr takes nothing for granted. Second, he never justifies his stories.
Carr’s refusal to take anything for granted makes him different from most writers of literary realist fiction because most of these other writers — the ones I now choose not to read — will resort to writing what they think “it’s really like” when they aren’t sure what to do next. That is to say that they often make boring events and characters (affairs and the middle-aged people who have them, unconsummated affairs and the middle-aged people who don’t have them, cancer deaths and the survivors who mourn them, suicides and the people who commit them, drugs and the people who use them) and congratulate themselves for writing the world the way it is. This takes the reader for granted because it assumes his or her interest will sustain itself without the writer’s help. This takes the world for granted because it suggests that the way we expect things to be is the way they are. Such writing fails as an imitation of reality; nothing in this life is ever much like what it’s “really like.”
I don’t believe that Brian Allen Carr writes his literary realist stories by asking himself what is likely or real. If he were doing it that way, he wouldn’t have made up Thick Bob, a grotesque who one day gave a bartender so much shit she actually tased him — and who, when he saw how much pleasure it brought the bar’s other patrons to see him tased and collapsed on the floor, proceeded not only to continue antagonizing the bartender, so that she would regularly repeat that performance, but to mount brief shows on a small stage inside the bar, wherein said bartender hits him with a bat, explodes fireworks in his clothes, throws darts at his person, and etc. If Brian Allen Carr wrote stories by asking himself what is likely, he wouldn’t have invented the protagonist of “Lucy Standing Naked,” a young boy of Asian descent, adopted by white Texans, who is named Nelson, and who is learning to play the guitar, and who sings country music better than most white boys, and who is in any case a novelty because there’s never been a famous country singer who looked like him. He wrote Nelson because Nelson was interesting. He wrote Nelson because Nelson makes a good yarn.
January 4th, 2013 / 12:00 pm