Book Review : Brian Keene - Where We Live and Die (2015)
My name is Brian Keene and I am either losing my mind or I am being haunted.
Writing fiction is the most romanticized job that exists. Everybody thinks they could do it if they weren't so lazy or if they had enough time and their novels would become best sellers overnight. I don't claim to hold any higher truth on the activity, but it's one of the most difficult, frustrating and thankless things I've ever done and I'm not even talking about the publishing aspect here. Written communication is easy. It's being taught to everybody the same way in school. Writing fictional stories people actually want to read is another ball game.
I didn't know who exactly Brian Keene was before picking up Where We Live and Die. I've read a couple of blog posts and saw a handful of book covers with his name on it while scrolling through my Facebook news feed, but that's it. This book came with the Lazy Fascist StoryBundle and I've stumbled upon it during an unforeseen three hours bus ride. I've discovered an earnest, passionate lifer hopelessly in love with the ideas of writing stories and scaring people. Keene also happens to be quite competent at these, but especially the latter.
Let me give you a little bit of context on how Where We Live and Die came to exist because it's the kind of book where context matters. Keene wrote himself the intro, stating Lazy Fascist Press editor Cameron Pierce wanted initially to reprint his metafictional ghost story The Girl on the Glider, which he initially objected to because it was available elsewhere. That story happens to be half of Where We Live and Die and it starts right after the intro, in the same exact stripped, honest narrative voice the introduction is written with. The transition is so seamless, it'll blur the already pale line metafiction traces between reality and the narrative.
I'll be honest and I don't mean no disrespect to Brian Keene here: the events depicted in The Girl on the Glider aren't any scarier than an episode of that silly television show Ghost Hunters. Stories based on reality often are underwhelming but nature since they are based on interpretation. Brian Keene knows how to tell a horror story though and what makes The Girl on the Glider successful is the contagious paranoia of its protagonist, in occurrence Keene himself. It's not what happens that's frightening, it's how Keene's lonely and delirious brain interprets it. It is in many ways more of a contemporary Gothic story than bona fide horror.
There's another metafictional story right after The Girl on the Glider called Musings. I thought it built on its predecessor as it began a couple years later in Brian Keene's life and portrayed the breakdown of his previous marriage and the loneliness of aesthetic pursuits. This time Keene traced a thicker line between reality and fiction but used the sneaky hardships of a life he's chosen to help him create a chimerical space where he seems to have become one with his creation. Brian Keene's metafictional stories don't deliver traditional narrative payoffs, but they creep up on you nonetheless like any good horror story should.
I haven't read enough straight fiction from this collection to judge whether or not Brian Keene's a standout fiction writer, but I can tell you this: he's not exactly a stylist (judging by his Goodreads page he simply writes too much to aspire to be one) and he relies on his terrifying visions in order to create unique and commanding narratives. My favorite fiction story in Where We Live and Die was The House of Ushers which created a brutal and otherworldly paradigm from the get go. I thought it was a bleak, crass and utterly disorienting story unlike most of what I've read. The House of Ushers has a reckless quality I find in very little storytelling and that alone would lead me to read more of Brian Keene's work.
So, should you read Where We Live and Die? I liked it enough, but it's kind of an advanced study thing. If you're still afraid of vampires, werewolves and slasher movies, it might not be your cup of tea. I don't want to sound petulant here, but the scares Brian Keene offers in this book are subtle and sophisticated. The type that crawl up your spine. More than anything I've appreciated the love and respect Brian Keene showed to his readers. He addresses us like long lost members of the family he's writing to which I felt was sincere yet helped creating the climate of metafictional paranoia that's vital to the book. Where We Live and Die is a work of passion, intellect and craftsmanship and it's more than I need to enjoy a book.