Copyright 2010 by Gary L. Pullman
A horror novel does not hang entirely upon the explanation of the horror, perhaps, but a good amount of readers’ satisfaction (or lack thereof) does hinge upon a satisfactory account of the horrific incidents or events that transpire during the course of the story. By satisfactory, I mean satisfying, and, by satisfying, I mean that the explanation is both feasible and integral to the action for which it is the account. It is not simply tacked on, as if it were an afterthought, to bring the narrative to a convenient conclusion. It is not a deus ex machina.
As both critics and readers have pointed out, Bentley Little’s novels too often end in such a manner, without rhyme or reason. This has happened, followed by that, for two or three hundred pages, for little enough (if any) reason, and that is, too often, enough for Little. The story is the important thing, and he has entertained his readers; a theme is of no real importance. Such seems to be the point of view of writers such as Little and, indeed, his unofficial mentor, Stephen King (who labels Little “the poet laureate of horror”).
Theme, however, does matter to most readers, writers, and critics. (One suspects that it matters to King, too, if not to his unofficial protégé, because King’s novels and short stories typically do suggest relatively important lessons.) Perhaps themes matter less to Little because fiction that doesn’t challenge or enlarge one’s understanding or tolerance or perspective or sympathy is much easier to write than fiction that does do so.
Unfortunately, although Little’s fiction frequently entertains, it seldom edifies. He often raises some important issues and, more importantly, perhaps, questions, but, because he is seldom, if ever, concerned with such matters as unity and cohesion and the logic of his plot is rarely rigorous, these issues and questions go largely unaddressed. The Vanishing is no exception.
After tantalizing readers with his insightful suggestion that perverse sexuality implies the decadence of human nature out of which such distorted impulses arise, while implying, at the same time, that religious faith (perhaps because it is mired in the same perverted nature), fails to remedy such impulses or to redeem the souls from which they arise, Little ignores these lines of development. Although horror stories frequently depend upon misdirection, which is generally effected through situational irony, such bait-and-switch tactics are usually narrative, seldom thematic, having to do with action rather than the meaning of the story as a whole. Instead of following his own suggested train of thought--that the perverted nature of human beings cannot be rectified through religious redemption or salvation (because, it may be, their very faith is also tainted by their sinful nature), Little turns his could-have been, should-have-been theological story into an ecological one, with the monstrous, Yeti-like creatures who menace the humans (with whom they also fornicate to preserve their corrupt stock), seeking, native American-like, to defend their territory, from encroaching civilization and its pollution of the environment:
“. . . Something Phillip Emmons said last night stuck with me: ‘They slaughtered invaders in order to preserve and defend the vanishing wilderness in which they lived. It was a protective measure.’ When I was doing my research at the library this morning, I looked at everything through that lens, and I have to admit, it made a kind of weird sense. What if whoever--or whatever--is left of this dying breed is trying to fight back, retake the land that was stolen from them, come out from whatever small corner of the wilderness they’ve been pushed into and strike against the now dominant species that stole their spot on the food chain: us?”The reference to religion at the end of the novel is entirely too late and too weak to ennoble Little’s ecological theme, however widespread and wholesale his characters may consider the rape of the land and the consequent suffering of its furry denizens. In writing The Vanishing, Little could have given his readers a novel worth reading, akin to King’s Desperation. Instead, “the poet laureate of horror” delivers a mangled tale worthier of M. Night Shyamalan than Little’s own unofficial mentor.
He looked at her skeptically. “So we’re involved in some kind of ecological horror story?’
“I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the forest grew back the day--the day--after the last stand of old growth trees was cut down.”
“Not only that,” she added. “Besides their money, what do Lew and Stephen Stewart and all those other men have in common? Oil, gas, construction, development, real estate. They all make money off the land, through its exploitation or the theft of its natural resources. Sure some of them give back and do good and try top help others, but that’s only because deep inside they feel guilty and know they’ve done wrong.”
“So what are you saying? That they’re killing their own families and committing suicide in order to stop themselves from drilling for oil or building more homes? That’s pretty ridiculous.”
[Readers will doubtlessly agree with this sentiment, at least.]
“. . . When cities expand and encroach on wilderness areas, the animals that live there are either removed or exterminated, forced to coexist or, as is usually the case, pushed even farther out into whatever open country remains. Why should this be any different? Besides, the defense and pursuit of land has caused even more wars than religion.”
“So we’re at war?”
“Aren’t we?” (337-338)
It’s a shame to see talent as great as Little’s go to waste.