Rob’s Critical Book Review: “Underground,” by Craig Spector
Though I’m sure to upset some authors and publishers who, understandably, want five-star reviews, I’ve my own definition of the five-star system.
*One Star: A crime against God and man.
*Two Stars: Poor, or otherwise not ready for publication.
*Three Stars: A solid work worth the money/read.
*Four Stars: A superior, award-worthy achievement.
*Five Stars: A standard setter, a work to stand the test of time, a work to be studied and read again and again….
A risky book. A reader’s book. A writer’s. A streamlined horror epic!
“Underground,” by Craig Spector, a three-star winner! (Which means that I LOVED IT.)
Craig Spector, of course, stands as one of the greats in the horror community’s pantheon of writing gods, a pillar, and who—it can be argued—along with John Skipp, fathered the sub-genre of splatterpunk. True or not—and it’s more true than it isn’t—I can’t deny the impact his works have had on me over the years, back-in-the-day, taking me through high school and beyond, and repeatedly knocking my socks off with “The Light at the End,” “The Scream,” “The Cleanup,” “The Bridge,” and more.
“Underground” has been no different.
And yet it was!
Here’s the book’s description:
Once upon a time there were seven good friends. They were the forgotten little brothers and sisters of the Big Chill generation, born in the turbulent year when the flames of Watts lit the City of Angels and napalm kissed the war-torn skies of Vietnam. They called themselves The Underground. For Justin and Mia, Josh and Caroline, Amy, Seth, and Simon, there was nothing but drugs and music, combined with boundless cynicism and a deep yearning for something that really mattered.
As graduation rolled around, they knew they would drift apart. By Labor Day weekend, there was just enough time to throw one last private party. But where? Creepy old Custis Manor was temporarily uninhabited. So they motored out to the moldering southern plantation, ready to party the night away.
They could not have known that on the other side of the mirrors, something watched: a
corrupt, voracious force, neither fully living nor truly dead. It was a soulless spirit of evil that had spent more than two hundred years cultivating its terrible powers.
It was the Great Night. And Custis Manor was its domain.
In one terrifying night their lives were forever shattered. One died. One disappeared. The survivors were scarred both inside and out. For twenty years, they couldn’t face the truth of what had really happened.
One has gone back, and through the mirror. And now the remaining friends are forced to confront the demons of their own pasts and a greater nightmare beyond their comprehension. Together they must face the Great Night, lay waste to its vicious legacy, and free the thousands of souls still trapped there, as the reunited Underground meets the Underground Railroad of souls.
Does the above description do its job?
Tantalize a potential reader to give the work a shot?
I believe it does. It also sounds a tad bit familiar, if not in plot, then in concept. Seems to be part of the natural progression of writers—at least in the spooky fiction realm—to want to pen a tale about youth wasted on the young, of jaded or otherwise damaged adults reuniting to right past wrongs, or otherwise “fix” something done in their—the assembled squad’s—collective past.
When this kind of story is done well, there are some real gems to be had. One cannot help but think of Stephen King’s “It,” Douglas Clegg’s “You Come When I Call You,” Golden’s “The Boys Are Back in Town,” or Peter Straub’s superb “A Dark Matter.”
Does Spector’s “Underground” deserve to be mentioned with this kind of company?
But the book is different (as if that would be a surprise, which, of course—duh—it isn’t). What was a surprise—and a welcomed one—was the risk(s) the author took, and the challenge to be overcome.
To overcome Craig Spector.
For the author, this might not have been a problem at all. This may just be part of my imagination. But often, for the very successful, for the lofty celebrity, be they a writer, an actor, a singer, a person’s previous work can become a speed-bump for future projects. Why? Because once a consumer gets satisfied with a work, once something has been consumed and enjoyed, the consumer often doesn’t want something new or different, but, instead, longs to have that previous experience replicated—again and again and again.
In my imagination, this must put a tremendous amount of pressure on an artist to keep doing the same ol’ dependable same ol’.
It makes money.
Makes consumers happy (not to mention publishers and agents).
Provides job security.
Of course, it can also produce hacks, can (and does) typecast, and can erode an artist’s willingness to … just do something different.
“Underground” is different. It’s different structurally, and with its prose.
The writing, itself, could almost be called literary. Almost. But not quite. The work is too accessible, too easy to read, the pages whizzing by too fast, to be anything quite as pretentious as literary. On the other hand, the prose does sing; despite the work’s ease-of-read, this writer can tell that the author labored to put down that just-right-word, just-perfect-line, just-right-paragraph, for page after page after page.
Yes, I know. This should be a given. After all, isn’t that a writer’s job? It is. But, unfortunately, it isn’t a given, and sometimes, even for the greats, one can get a sense of somebody just phoning it in. With “Underground,” however, this was certainly not the case.
The book’s point of view also stood out as a winner. Why? Because it couldn’t have been
easy. (Well, it might’ve been for Spector.) With “Underground,” the author chose an omniscient third-person narrator, but one so unobtrusive, that despite the inevitable loss of intimacy offered by first-person or third-person limited, I still felt quite close and connected to the characters.
Yes, the structure. Though the book’s not short of dialogue and immediate scenes, overall, the work’s got a narrative engine propelling the plot, with plenty of (necessary) back-story provided.
In the hands of anyone but a craftsman, this would not have worked.
Next, the author pulled off writing a chaff-free affair. Unlike … say … Straub’s “A Dark Matter” (a monster of some 600-pages), Spector, not opting for an inches-thick tome with loads of elbow-room, instead produced a streamlined tale of only a mere 257-pages, and that, stopping on a dime, right where the tale needed to end—and not a word more.
Now that’s a feat.
Maximum story in minimum time!
With “Underground,” will every reader be happy?
No. Of course not. Such is the case with any work, by any author, but especially with books that are well done. And especially with works that are a stretch, a risk, something outside of the typical play-box.
With “Underground,” readers aren’t going to get “The Bridge” or “The Scream,” or some other vintage-esque Spector-work in competition with his other titles (or anyone else’s). Instead, one gets the chance to consume a story written by a mature writer at the top of his game, a work—that due to its quality—was probably produced more out of a labor of love (and if not love, perhapsnecessity) than anything as mercenary as simply wanting to make a buck.
For those that love to read, “Underground” does its job.
For those that love to read and love to write, there’s a lot to learn here.
All my best,
Rob M. Miller