Friday, 30 September 2011
‘The Damned Highway’ – Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas (Dark Horse Books)
Anyway... ‘The Damned Highway’ presented itself as the ideal way of topping up my dose of Brian Keene along with the chance to find out just what Nick Mamatas is all about. I’m not sure how I made out as far as those two things go but I had one hell of a lot of fun reading ‘The Damned Highway’ in the meantime. I wouldn’t have thought that a book involving Cthulhu would have me laughing out loud. Shows how wrong I was...
It’s January 1972 and America’s premier ‘gonzo’ journalist (yes, him) finds himself resenting his unexpected fame as well suffering from a severe case of writer’s block. It’s time for some reinvention! One name change and a scheme to reinvigorate both his patriotism and his writing later, ‘Uncle Lono’ finds himself on a strange journey to Arkham, Massachusetts, and the presidential primary. All is not well though, Lono gradually uncovers evidence that the forces of Cthulhu are working behind the scenes and their most prominent member is one Richard Nixon! Can Richard Nixon gain the number of states needed to usher in the apocalypse? Can Lono find another supply of those really good mushrooms...? All will be revealed...
I said that I wasn’t sure how well ‘The Damned Highway’ worked in terms of getting my ‘Brian Keene fix’ and being introduced to Nick Mamatas’ work for the first time. The bottom line here is that Mamatas and Keene work together so well that there’s no real of telling who wrote what. It’s like they combined into one uber-writer (Brian Mamatas? MamataKeene?) for the duration of the book and I’m all for that approach. When I read a book written by two (or more) writers I’m always looking to see if I can see the ‘joins’ in the writing. I couldn’t see any here and it made for a very smooth reading experience.
And what a read it was! Two hundred and five pages of sheer adrenaline with a main character living off various illegal substances as well as his frayed nerves. Add a sinister conspiracy that reaches the highest levels of American politics, along with that most dangerous of Elder Gods, and I found that I had myself a book that took a firm hold of my eyeballs and steadfastly refused to let go until the bitter end.
It goes without saying that a working knowledge of Hunter S. Thompson and ‘Gonzo Journalism’ is going to mean that the reader gets a lot more out of the proceedings than someone who doesn’t have that knowledge. Someone like me for instance, a reader who should have paid a lot more attention to his studies (or even studied at all) in the course of gaining a degree in... American Studies. Yep, I know...
Luckily for readers like me, ‘The Damned Highway’ didn’t let too much go over my head. Lono’s acerbic wit and observations carry the book along just as quickly as the underlying threat does. Like I said, that little extra knowledge helps but you don’t necessarily need it to know that Lono loves his country but doesn’t think much of the shape that parts of it are in right now. I couldn’t help but chuckle at some of the stuff that Lono came up with (as well as get a little thoughtful about some of the points being made about modern day America) and that was before the forces of Cthulhu made their appearance.
‘The Damned Highway’ is a read that will bring a grin to your face but it’s also a read that will make the hairs stand up on the back of your neck if my experience was anything to go by. Keene and Mamatas display a handy knack of being able to hide the weird and downright evil in open sight and lull you into a false sense of security just before you run into it. Cthulhu lurks in the most unexpected places and it’s that mix of the normal and weird that makes for a very unsettling read at times. The machinations of Richard Nixon, in particular, are cartoonish and somehow all the more evil for it. The most unsettling thing of all though is when Lono gets a glimpse of the future and lives to see it all come to pass. Keene and Mamatas know that the darkest evil doesn’t live on the page and they use that to great affect here.
What really impressed me though was how a book that flies along, literally at breakneck speed, can be so controlled and tight in its prose. Lono is prone to ramble but the plot doesn’t and everything is tied up by the end of the book, an ending that keeps in tradition with all the best horror by suggesting that a more final ending is looming on the horizon.
‘The Damned Highway’ is a playful homage to Lovecraft, and Hunter S. Thompson, that never fails to make you shiver while you’re busy thinking about some of the more serious satire lurking on its edges. I’d recommend you pick it up, ‘superb’ doesn’t even come close.
Ten out of Ten