The sub-genre of mutated inbred cannibals has almost exclusively been set in the wilderness (Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes, Jack Ketchum’s Off Season and its sequel Offspring, Richard Laymon’s The Woods are Dark) but for his newest novel modern day horror maestro Brian Keene moves the action out of the wilds and into the cities.
The plot concerns a carload of kids who break down in the wrong part of Philly coming home from a concert. The teens try to find shelter in an old house, but soon learn what lurks inside it is far worse than the inner-city has to offer.
The plot is simple but its execution is the marvelous part. The first thing I was doing was laughing at the characters Keene presents us with. I was rolling my eyes at their apparent clueless-ness and could not wait to see a few bite it. But once they get inside the house and are faced with its perverse tenants, characters develop, emotions shift and the reader begins to genuinely care for these kids, rooting for them every step of the way. We aren’t presented with victims; we’re presented with people put in a illogical situation (to borrow one of the character’s rationalizations).
The sections of the book that take place inside the house itself reminded me a whole lot of the feeling of being inside a haunted attraction: destroyed furniture, twisting hallways and secret passageways. The mutants are plentiful and disgusting, and each one the reader meets leaves them thinking: “oh that has to be the last one.” Only to be proven wrong.
There is a subplot taking place outside the house in which we are introduced to the book’s most likable character: Perry Watkins. Perry is an aging African American man who has seen his community destroyed by indifference: and he’s not going to take it anymore.
To reveal more would be to spoil, but be warned: Keene wrote this one for the hardest of the hardcore. He liberally splatters the pages with every bodily fluid imaginable, with the grace and dexterity of a true master.
For those looking for (comparatively) tamer Keene thrills I would suggest his coming-of-age/monster story Ghoul. For those with stronger constitutions there is no safer bet for some gross, fun(?) and maybe even socially conscious scares than Urban Gothic.