Imagine if you could combine different writers, the way botanists combine grafts of different trees. For example, David Foster Wallace’s lucidity, matched with Terry Brooks’ originality, Anne Rice’s brevity, Dean Koontz’s gritty slice-of-life realism, Harlan Ellison’s humbleness, Stephen King’s ability to really stick an ending, and Dan Brown’s prose. Writing involves several different skills, and no writer is a master of all of them. Reading a book often means enjoying one side of the author’s craft and cringing at another.

Frederick Forsyth is a dramatic example of this.  His prose, characterization, and thematic work is bad – some of the worst I’ve ever seen. But his stories are good.

And they’re anchored by astounding levels of technical detail. Forsyth had superhuman research abilities. It’s not a figure of speech to say his life depended on them. He wasn’t a tinker or tailor, but at least he was a soldier and spy, and his later career involved flexing the fact-gathering muscles he’d built in the RAF and MI6 (as well as a lengthy career as a journalist in places like Biafra and Nigeria) and using them to write thriller novels.

The typical Forsyth story involves him pounding out reams of fascinating and believable technical detail on all sorts of things…while gingerly walking around his story’s human elements, like a man on thin ice.

The first story in his “No Comebacks” collection draws a highlighter over his strengths and weaknesses. A wealthy, amoral man falls in love with a married woman, and hatches a plot to have her husband killed. The romance scenes are terrible and barely register as such: Forsyth writes like an entomologist describing a strange insect mating ritual. But as soon as the contract killer plotline starts, Forsyth sparks to life. Here’s how you gather intelligence on someone; here’s how you find a hitman; here’s how you conceal a pistol inside a book, here’s how to modify bullets so they make less sound, and on and on. The quotidian detail builds and then sunders apart in a vicious snap.

“There Are No Snakes in Ireland” has more mismatched parts. A Punjabi medical student takes a job on a Belfast construction site, and is bullied by a racist foreman. He schemes up a revenge plot that’s substantially more complex than it has to be, and of course everything goes wrong (or right (or doubly wrong (or doubly right))). The story’s unreal fairytale quality jars against the mundane construction-worker aspects. Forsyth seems most comfortable when describing how to demolish a building.

“The Emperor” is a homage to Hemingway, featuring an exhausting, exhilerating struggle of man-vs-fish on the open waters. Everything around this is silly, particularly the cartoonishly awful wife. Forsyth doesn’t appear to like women much: they seldom feature except as murder victims, nagging shrews, criminal extortionists, and so on. The hero Murgatroyd, like us, happily forgets all of this as soon as he sets out to sea.

“There Are Some Days” is set in Ireland during the Troubles. A truck driver has his lorry hijacked by the Northern Irish mafia, who believe that he’s carrying a shipment of brandy. There are multiple misunderstandings and confusions, finally leading to the most effective twist ending in the book. It’s almost the story with the least humanity, it’s almost as if the lorry is the main character. Forsyth’s descriptions of a truck breaking down and being fixed are infinitely more absorbing than any of his romance plots.

“Money With Menace” is about a nebbish, shy man who seems to have come out of a Monty Python sketch about investment bankers. A sexual misadventure (that Forsyth wisely doesn’t try to depict at all) soon leads to an extortion plot. The tension is exciting, and the ending is spoiled in advance. Too bad.

“Used in Evidence” is about a silent old man who has finally been evicted from his squalid terrace apartment. It’s soon discovered why he didn’t want to leave – there’s a mummified human cadaver behind the fireplace. Has he murdered someone? It’s a blood-freezing tale, with scarcely a trace of humor. It’s very much like Roald Dahl’s stories for grownups, “The Landlady” or whatever.

“Privilege”, by contrast, is as light and insubstantial as a soap bubble. I guess Forsyth heard that you can’t be sued for anything you say in court, and thought he could write a story about this one detail and nothing else.

“Duty” is written in the first-person, with an cautious note from Forsyth that it’s not like the others. I didn’t find it to be that different. It relies on lots of quotidian detail for its effects, weaving together a plot involving mysteries, confusion, secrets, and ambiguous or mistaken identities. It doesn’t have the same knockout punch as “No Comebacks” and “There Are Some Days”, and it’s about an event so far away (both in time and place) from the narrative that it’s hard to care much. It’s like “experiencing” the movie Titanic in the form of two co-workers discussing it ten years after seeing it. Interestingly mainly for the day-to-day details about rural Ireland.

“A Careful Man” is about a dead millionaire who plays a prank on his hated inlaws from beyond the grave. Similar to The Wrong Box and many other squabble-at-the-graveside type stories. There’s more meat to it than “Privilege”, but it’s ultimately a similar tale, ending in poetic justice. The moral seems to be “the law is an ass, so why not go for a ride on it?”

“Sharp Practice” involves a judge who is cozened into a game of poker by a man who – by coincidence, just one day later – he has in the dock for running a card scam. An elaborate story, with Forsyth immersing the reader in poker and having it seem like a fascinating, self-contained universe. Terry Pratchett said that the secret to a magic trick is to know just one extra fact. Here, there’s one fact that the judge doesn’t know, and also one fact that the reader doesn’t know. A fun story, although I guessed the twist a few pages before it came.

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The Cellar (1980) is among the worst books I’ve read recently. It’s definitely the stupidest. Every person in it seems to have brain damage. I gave up on thinking about [literally any character]’s motives for performing [literally any action]; I never got an answer beyond “they’re idiots”. Does it even have a single murder? All the characters legally qualify as vegetables.

It’s a beneficiary of the 70s Stephen King horror boom; Warner Books were clearly waving through any manuscript with scary monsters at that point. The Cellar became a minor classic in spite of itself, and an canonical early example (along with Jack Ketchum’s Off Season) of “extreme horror”, or “splatterpunk”: books that focus on extreme gore and shocking sex acts. Yes ma’am, Laymon paved the way for literary titans like Edward Lee, JF Gonzalez, James “Wrath” White, and several other guys who should probably quit and get landscaping jobs.

Everything about The Cellar is bad. Its only redeeming quality is that Laymon doesn’t seem like a cynic. He was probably trying his damndest to write a good book, he just wasn’t any good at it. Generally, books make you ask questions. Who’s lying? Who’s the murderer? Will the dog survive? Here, the most germaine question is “if the book starts drooling and ruins my upholstery, can I sue the Laymon estate for damages?”

The opening scene is straight out of Goosebumps. It’s night, and a hard-headed father drags his fraidy-cat son to the creepy local mansion to prove that there’s No Such Thing As Monsters. There is, in fact, a monster inside, and it kills both of them along with a pointless cop character who seems to have wandered into the book by accident.

The beast is described as white, with a snout. What sort of snout, though? A dog’s? A pig’s? An aardvark’s? Lots of animals have snouts, Laymon, and they all look different. I don’t magically know what the monster looks like just because it has a snout. You’re supposed to use words to paint a picture here.

The mansion (we learn) is called the Beast House, and has been the site of many slayings across seventy years. Two men form an unlikely partnership to solve the mystery. One of them, Larry is a traumatized basket case who was literally anally raped by the monster (what?). The other is a badass Rambo-esque former spec forces operative whose name is “Judgement”, in a typically subtle touch from Laymon. The two men journey to the Beast House, and begin a long process of researching the town’s history. Is there really a monster inside the Beast House? Or is it all an elaborate hoax?

You probably see the problem. The reader knows the monster’s real – we saw it in the opening scene – so this is just wasted time. We spend literally half the book impatiently drumming our fingers, waiting for characters to catch up to what we already know.

The secondary plotline is even worse. A woman called Donna receives a phone call. Her husband has been released from prison. She puts down the phone, packs her daughter into a car, and drives them far away, never to return. Her behavior seems so over-the-top and irrational that I wondered if Donna might be crazy, suffering from paranoid delusions. Maybe her husband’s just a normal guy, or nonexistent. That would have been interesting plot for a book: a daughter trying to survive a clinically insane mother who has her trapped in a car.

…But no, it’s real. Her husband Roy is a child-molesting mega-psycho who randomly kills every third or fourth person he sees and is tracking them down like the Terminator. The first rule of Laymon: if there’s a choice between a smart idea and a dumb idea, he always, always, always goes with the dumb idea.

Roy is perhaps the stupidest villain I’ve ever encountered. He has no motivation aside from raping and murdering his family. He’s stunningly incautious; he travels in a straight line from prison to the family home, discovers they’ve left, and flies into a rage at the nearest neighbor (causing them to call the cops). The guy’s an imbecile; it’s unbelievable that he remains uncaught for five minutes. He couldn’t order a hot dog without attracting an all-points bulletin.

Donna’s no MENSA candidate herself. She drives and drives with no plan whatsoever, crashes her car in a ditch near the town containing the mansion, and then hooks up (literally) with Larry and Judgement, finally joining them on their quest to solve the Beast House’s non-mysterious mystery. There’s some skeevy Skinemax-level shit where she puts on a swimsuit and the guys ogle her. I was impressed that (while running from her psychotic husband) she found time to pack a swimsuit.

The sex scenes deserve to be quoted at length. He mounted me from behind, a manner unusual for humans as it is customary among many lower animals. At the first touch of his organ, fear wrenched my vitals, not for the safety of my flesh but for my everlasting soul. And yet I allowed him to continue. I know, now, that no power of mine could have prevented him from having his will with me. I made no attempt to resist, however. On the contrary, I welcomed his entry. I hungered for it as if I somehow presaged its magnificence. Oh Lord, how he plundered me! How his claws tore my flesh! How his teeth bore into me! How his prodigious organ battered my tender womb. How brutal he was in his savagery, how gentle his heart. This is written in the voice of a woman circa 1900, but still, wow.

The plot twists in stupid directions, impervious to any logic yet discovered by mankind. I wonder whether Laymon ever wrote an actual ending – maybe I have to buy one of his other books to read it.

He wrote a lot of them, and their titles offer a window into his unique, inspired take on the horror genre. Nightmare Lake. Night Show. Midnight’s Lair. Endless Night. After Midnight. The Midnight Tour. Come Out Tonight. Friday Night in Beast House. Night in the Lonesome October. Night Games. Night Ride. The Night Creature. You can kinda see him cycling through every variation in the dictionary. He died in 2001, so the world will never see The Dark Midnight or The Night at Night, or The Night Tonight at Midnight.

Check out The Cellar to see just how bad 80s horror got. If Stephen King’s Carrie is “Wannabe” by the Spice Girls, Richard Laymon’s The Cellar is “No Way No Way” by Vanilla. Once, it was thought, horror called for understatement. The scares were more in what the reader didn’t see. Thank God Laymon and his copycats were there to show us the truth: real horror is about people having sex with animals atop a pile of mutilated corpses with their viscera arranged in a pentagram. Along with a detective story where you already know the answer. I’d have loved to have seen him screenwrite Twin Peaks: he’d probably tell us who killed Laura Palmer before she even dies.

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Mass shootings have killed a lot of people and created a lot of mythology: trenchcoats; clocktowers; grassy knolls; lone wolves; false flags; crisis actors; radicalization; warning signs. It’s a congealed, gruesome mass of images and slang, a culture trying to decode a thing that’s deadly, fascinating, and incomprehensible. Moths might create a similar mythology around flames, if they could.

A common trope is the second shooter. Early reports often describe two or more gunmen. This invariably proves false: the typical spree killer has no better odds of attracting an accomplice than he does a girlfriend, and with just two famous exceptions (and one unfamous one), mass shootings are conducted by a single man, working alone.

The second shooter appears to be a psychoacoustic phenomenon – scared people mistaking echoes and richochets for additional gunmen, and so on – but it’s eerily common, enough that the omnipresent advice people spam on Twitter includes “there’s almost never a second shooter”.

Nick Mamatas’s book has a strong hook: what if the second shooter was real? Michael Karras is a small-press hack-for-hire writing a book on the subject. His research isn’t going well…and then suddenly far too well, when he’s caught near the epicenter of a horrific (and strange) attack and witnesses the second shooter illusion first-hand. From there, things get weirder. His computer has been hacked. His research notes are being tampered with. Drones are following him.

I’ve read books on paranormal stuff (such as cryptids and UFOs) where it’s painfully obvious the writer stopped believing in it partway through. Karras is the opposite – a disbeliever converted by circumstance. What can he do, though? He’s up against the same paradox inside every conspiracy theory: if there were malign forces at work who could manipulate physics at will, to the point of making a person disappear into thin air…would you even try to expose them?

The story is pacey and well-written, with plenty of humor and a sharp eye for character. The dialog’s great: The Second Shooter is stuffed with thowaway lines (“Of course we have the wifi”) that just sound contextually right in a way that’s hard to articulate. Mamatas has a fantastic ear for how people talk.

The Second Shooter is a thriller, but it eschews airport novel cliches for moments of real creativity and inspiration. The book is packed with odd and unusual ideas – important plot points involve a MUD, an Ikea table, and the fact that a certain character knows what a TV rerun is – and the plot’s serpentiform twists are as unpredictable as a real mass shooting. There’s a sense of eclecticism throughout, like a song made up of all the wrong chords.

Mass shootings are absurd as well as scary (Columbine’s farcical “revenge of the nerds” narrative set the tone), and the associated culture of grifters and exploiters gives Mamatas a satirical target a mile wide. This is best seen in the character of Chris Bennett, a conspiracy-peddling shock jock (described as “having all the charisma of an empty chair”) who is clearly based upon Alex Jones. Bennett seems to view himself as Captain Ahab and Karras as Moby Dick, and there are loud hints that he might be involved in whatever’s happening to Karras. The two men are enemies, and Bennett never fails to be cartoonishly awful, but there are similarities between them, too. They both exploit fear for money. And they both exist inside a profit-driven media machine that – at a systemic level- does not want mass shootings to stop.

What Karras needed, he thought in darker moments, was another mass shooting […] Come on, special boy! Get angry! A slaughter close enough to drive to, with plenty of witnesses ready to talk about the tightly coordinated team of gunmen who had just torn through a school, or church, or shopping mall. He had the news on the radio, and the police scanner app running on his phone. Despite the shocking number of mass shootings out there, America was still a great big country, and on a daily basis a lot more people were dying of heart attacks and car accidents than they were at the hands of crazed gunmen.

I had a friend who was a kind of anti-evangelist for cryptocurrencies. He self-published a book about how Bitcoin etc are worthless pump-and-dump scams (yadda yadda)….but he himself owned cryptocurrencies! His rationalization went something like “well, if Bitcoin goes up in value, more people will want to read books about it, so I’m increasing my own market”. He was joking, but money still perverts incentives in interesting ways. Karras isn’t evil. Nothing he does is especially wrong. But he still makes his bread with the filling of graves; even if he isn’t pulling the trigger himself. It’s a grim way to make a living.

The Second Shooter isn’t perfect. It’s not easy for a book to be too smart but Mamatas wanders close to the line sometimes. The dialog (though lively and believable) has a Whedonesque quality, with constant dry quipping that damages the tension. Karras is just the cleverest fucker in the world, making jokes about Vonnegut to 7-Eleven clerks and dropping Situationist quotes into casual conversation. There’s a gag near the beginning about how Karras has only gone to mass once in ten years – maybe we’re supposed to laugh at someone called “Karras” being a bad Catholic. If that’s a pop culture reference, the book didn’t need it.

I kept hoping The Second Shooter would become rawer, less sophisticated, and more of a punch to the gut. But in the end, it’s just not that kind of book. Its ideas are ultimately Marxist/post-Marxist ones: mass shootings aren’t about blood in the streets: they’re about power relations, dialectics, images, struggles, spectacles, and so on. These aren’t irrelevent egghead distractions: if you’ve ever held an Online Opinion(tm) about whether we should publicize the name and image of mass murderers (or does this glorify the killer?), you’re touching upon ideas DeBord and Baudrillard wrote about forty years ago. It’s rare to see a genre novel that tackles such stuff directly, but The Second Shooter’s academic inclinations definitely put distance between it and the average thriller.

The ending is fascinating. Just when you’re ready for Mamatas to begin unwinding the complicated plot, he suddenly throws you into very deep waters. Like Neuromancer, The Second Shooter “resolves” itself in a way that’s actually more head-spinning than the original mystery. I liked the ending, but again, it probably won’t play well to those wanting a dumb action showdown while the hero explains what’s happening in monosyllables.

In an image-driven world, perception matters a lot, often more than the reality behind it. Once it was fashionable to talk about Fake News, usually as a club to beat your tribal opponents with. But as the second shooter phenomenon demonstrates, the biggest vectors of Fake News are our own eyes and ears. Even the clearest light and the purest sound still has to pass through your brain. If your brain thinks your genetic fitness could be boosted by perceiving something else, it stacks the deck.

In the aftermath of Hiroshima, John Hersey and Dr Takashi Nagai gathered testimony from “hibakusha”, or bomb survivors. Many claimed to have seen the bomb explode directly above their heads.[1]Bronowski, J., and Robert Jay Lifton. Scientific American, vol. 218, no. 6, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1968, pp. 131–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24926262 This is impossible – they would have instantly died. Most of them had probably been hundreds of meters or more from the hypocenter. But it shows the unreliability of first-hand experience. “I’ll believe it when I see it” used to be a skeptic’s battle cry; now it’s a credulous retreat back to faith. You can’t believe the things that you see. So what, then, can you believe?

The Second Shooter is an unusual book about a sadly common thing. It’s about a broken society refracted in broken images across broken people, where fake becomes real and fantasy supplants reality. Hunter S Thompson got off easy next to Michael Karras. What would he have done if he’d stopped over at Barstow, slept and pissed all the grass and mescaline and acid and cocaine out of his system…and the bats were still in the sky?

(November 11th 2021, Solaris)

References

References
1 Bronowski, J., and Robert Jay Lifton. Scientific American, vol. 218, no. 6, Scientific American, a division of Nature America, Inc., 1968, pp. 131–35, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24926262
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