Demon Theory by Stephen Graham Jones
Anchor Canada: 2007 (first pub. by MacAdam/Cage Publishing, USA: 2006), 442 pp., US$21.00
The horror genre has many rooms in its house, and the doors have easily recognizable nameplates. It's usually a cinch to figure out which rooms its novels, films and stories came from: Zombies, Supernaturals (with sublets labeled Haunted House, Ghost, Vampire, Werewolf, etc.), Psychological (more sublets called Mad Slasher [deranged], Psycho Killer [sociopath], Dream World, etc.), and Mad Scientist, among others, are residents in the house.
One room that's particularly popular with young-adult moviegoers is the Slasher-Pic, where a group of young people go off somewhere away from civilization (a lakeside cabin, an inherited house, etc.) and are decimated à la Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None. This is the room where Stephen Graham Jones begins his story. But it doesn't stay there, and that's the genius of his scheme.
Director John Carpenter may not have put the "boo!" in Halloween, but he certainly made it permanently synonymous with fear in contemporary Western culture with his eponymous classic film starring Jamie Lee Curtis (and its sequels). Thus, any mention of that ostensibly fun children's holiday will also conjure nightmares of knives and being chased through a house by a stranger bent on ending one's life for no readily discernible reason. So when better to start this story but on Halloween night?
At a costume party on this spookiest of all nights in the year, medical student Hale gets a decidedly disturbing phone call from his aged mother, who lives alone out in the country (of course). She's diabetic and talking strangely. The conversation ends abruptly when the connection is somehow dropped, so Hale mounts an expedition with a handful of his friends (medical students also, still all in costume) to drive out to the family home and check on Mom. They make side trips to a hospital and convenience store for supplies, and head out to the hinterlands. But there's a snowstorm in the wings, a dead sister from Hale's childhood, an absent father, and something waiting for them at the family home (besides Hale's mother) that none of them wants to believe is real.
That's the nut of the tale. What makes it what I've termed nested horror is what Jones does with it. The foundation story of Hale and his friends is thrown into a film treatment pot, mixed with decidedly scary childhood incidents, spiced with footnotes containing hundreds of pop-culture references that are nearly always relevant, garnished by a list of progenitors for this technique in an Afterword, and presented to the reader as a work of fiction that almost begs to be turned into a film. The problem is that turning it into a film would strip away all that is grand and devious about this book, and that would be a great shame.
MacAdam/Cage's press release calls Demon Theory "an experimental tale of horror," and that's an apt description. Jones has taken the structural elements of writing a film treatment as his skeleton for a triptych in words that features all the best elements of both film and written horror. Ostensibly, the book is "a three-part novelization of the feature film trilogy The Devil Inside, as adapted from D, the unauthorized best-seller inspired by the case notes of Dr. Neider, as recorded in a series of interviews conducted during his residency at Owl Creek Mental Facilities and originally published in the journal P/Q as 'Narrative, Me-dia, and Allocution: Genre as Mnemonic Device.'" This sentence opens each of the three sections in Demon Theory. Before he even begins the story, Jones has begun nesting one thing within another, thus forewarning the reader that this is not an ordinary horror novel.
The proof of that supposition is in the text. Jones pulls in references and cites from seemingly all areas of human experience, non-fictional as well as fictional, and the result is a rich, dense soup of sensation and emotion that isn't easily escaped, even at book's end.
There are, however, some problems with this kind of experiment.
The copious Notes section can draw a reader away from the main text for several minutes at a time. Jones's store of movie and TV-show references is vast, giving the impression that he's actually seen every film or TV show he includes (and maybe he has—
Of course, without the footnotes, readers less knowledgeable of the horror genre (and popular culture) would perhaps not understand a lot of references that are important to the story. A reader would need at least some familiarity with horror to avoid stopping to read all the footnotes, and this is the danger inherent in using footnotes as part of the main text—
There are moments when Jones's footnoting becomes too vague about classic horror elements to be worthwhile (p. 303, where Seri says, "If this was a movie...", which is footnoted with a reference to the Kiss song "Detroit Rock City" and the movie "Evil Breed"). What was the point, please? If the thing's so obvious, does it need a footnote?
One could read the text through without stopping for the footnotes, certainly (the story still hangs together well that way), and then read it a second time and stop for the footnotes. But there has to be an attraction strong enough in the story itself for a reader to do this, and Jones has succeeded in writing a story that has just enough pull to make this happen, though it may not be enough pull for all readers. Those interested in structural devices, and logophiles in general, will be most likely to take two trips with this book.
Jones plays with a variety of horror standards (i.e., creaking doors, searching the attic) in a way that honors them and makes the story's characters less stupid than many of their film counterparts. We know someone has to go into that room, but in this story there are good reasons for it; making the characters aware of the genre cliché gives them more realism, because scary things do happen in "real life." Jones also works in some dark fantasy and science fiction elements to thicken the plot soup, and the careful reader will be rewarded with small gifts buried in the text, like Easter eggs on a DVD. The story action's pacing is relentless, but dialogue provides breathers at key points—
Near the story's end, we get this: "It's all about nostalgia, foreknowledge, trying to resist the inevitable." In some important ways, this wraps up the themes of this work. Threads of nostalgia run through the novel/treatment: Hale's, for his early family life (or his idealized memory of it), and his friends', for their lives before the nightmare of this tale began. The foreknowledge comes from the characters' familiarity with horror films and their comprehension that they're living through a scary movie all their own. Resisting the inevitable is the characters' attempt to break out of the enveloping fear their situation has created, to deny that what has and will likely happen are real.
Demon Theory is a densely packed, frisson-jammed roller-coaster ride of a book. The experiment is mostly successful, and an admirable thing to attempt.