REVIEW #4 - THE BLACKENING OF FLESH - Christian A Larsen

Released: January, 2016 | Published by: Post Mortem Press



Chris Larsen is quickly becoming one of my favorite writers. If you’ve visited this site before and read my review of his debut novel Losing Touch, you know that I’ve been a fan of his work for a while now, but as a reader, you never know whether or not that enjoyment will carry over to the writer’s sophomore effort. Sometimes, the nuances of a particular author’s style that are successful in one book may be intolerable in another. Sometimes, an author voicing a different sort of character than he or she had in the earlier work can expose a one-dimensional aspect to his or her writing. Well, I’m happy to report that in Chris Larsen’s latest release, The Blackening of Flesh, that’s not the case. In fact, quite the contrary. You can all exhale now (especially you, Chris).

The Blackening of Flesh tells the tale of newly graduated high-school outcast Jared Dix. While running a delivery for the local drug store, Jared meets Monica: an aloof college girl who immediately becomes the subject of his infatuation. Monica informs him of his house’s sordid past (which she discovered while writing a research paper about the Cerutti gang) and the two strike up a friendship of convenience…with Jared holding out hope for a little more than just friendship. Soon enough, however, Jared’s interest in his home’s history morphs from a convenient icebreaker with an attractive girl to a matter of life and death as one by one his loved ones are possessed by the ghosts of Capone-era gangsters.

As with Larsen’s debut novel, Losing Touch, what makes The Blackening of Flesh work so well is Chris’s writing style. There’s an effortlessness to Larsen’s prose that—simply put—is comfortable for the reader. I wince as I write this because I know this comparison is drawn upon far too often with horror authors nowadays, but Larsen’s writing reminds me of Stephen King in that way. While most comparisons to King are made simply because the book in question has a horror premise that reminds the reviewer of one of King’s works (which is almost impossible to avoid at this point as he’s 60+ books into his career and has used basically every horror plot imaginable), in this case, it’s Larsen’s style specifically that is reminiscent of King’s charm.

There’s an interview on YouTube starring King and Audrey Niffenegger wherein King discusses how much easier it is to describe a character by saying he listens to Travis Tritt in his pickup truck along with a few physical descriptors than to write out a huge backstory (which King would probably do anyway just because he’s Stephen King and he likes to write books with 1,000+ pages). The reader, he argues, immediately conjures his or her own mental picture of what this Travis Tritt fan would be like (I’m paraphrasing, of course) because we all share a “culture pool.” The image is more vivid within the reader’s mind based on personal observations than if King had spent pages and pages describing every detail about him. It’s the old showing-versus-telling proverb with a little twist because it’s based primarily on utilizing specific cultural markers to orient the reader rather than context clues.

Similarly, readers of The Blackening of Flesh get a sense of Jared and Monica’s characters based upon the pop-culture references they make, whether through actual thought or as reflected in their personal tastes (like Monica’s t-shirts). Throughout the novel, Jared compares objects and situations to TV shows and movies he likes, mostly of the science fiction and horror variety. Specifically, he makes several Star Wars comparisons that give the reader a better understanding of who Jared is and how he struggles to fit in at school. As a reader, we immediately “know” that guy. This is not in any way a shot at 18 year-olds who love Star Wars (especially since I’m a 29 year-old who loves Star Wars), but like it or not, there is a mental picture that forms when a character is described as an 18 year-old Star Wars fan with bad acne who has never kissed a girl and is reminded of Darth Vader in life-or-death situations, just like we’ve formed a preconception of the Travis Tritt fan riding in a pickup truck in King’s example. (Side note: I’d written out my own impressions of that character since I hadn’t listened to the interview in a while and didn’t remember that King provided his own physical description. Oddly enough, my description is different than his, which might undermine my point except that they essentially would have the same personality. In my head, the truck driver is probably Republican, he may or may not have a Confederate flag bumper sticker, he’s most likely wearing a trucker hat with workman boots, blue jeans, and a plaid button-up, and he’s probably a selfish, obnoxious driver who will fly past you on the shoulder when traffic is stopped. Neither here nor there, I guess, but I found it interesting that we can arrive at the same place regardless of varying physical descriptions. I also had thought that King referred to him as a Toby Keith fan rather than Travis Tritt, so take whatever you will from that.)

Right or wrong, these are widely-accepted stereotypes and readers have an easier time connecting with characters based on these descriptions simply because they have observed people just like this in real life, or caricatures of a similar ilk in film and TV. In fact, one of the challenges of writing in genres such as fantasy, science fiction, and distant historical fiction is that there aren’t any stereotypes at the outset because the stories take place in worlds with foreign technologies, popular culture, and politics. Character backgrounds, therefore, cannot be implied with the same ease. As a writer, I can’t say Dessa is a Fronov and expect the reader to form any sort of connection with the character without breaking down what exactly a Fronov is, what physical characteristics they have, what clothing they wear (if any at all), what beliefs they ascribe to religiously and/or culturally, what their temperament may be, and perhaps a dozen other important identifiers. Creating relatable characters becomes that much more difficult because the reader has no frame of reference. There is no “culture pool” to draw from in fantastical works, especially space opera and fantasy. Even in the Travis Tritt example, King may veer off from our preconceptions about that character, but he at least has a template to work from which would be easily identifiable for most readers who have an ear to modern popular culture.

Chris Larsen manages a rare feat in The Blackening of Flesh by using these seemingly casual references to provide the reader with unique insight into Jared’s motivations. We don’t doubt for a second that Jared would attempt to prolong his relationship (friendship or otherwise) with Monica by using the murder house as a common interest, and that allows Larsen to detail the site’s history along with the book’s villains without making it seem like an overt data dump—something which all authors (rightly) try to avoid. King has a masterful grasp of these allusive descriptors which provide vital context for his audience and make for an exceedingly smooth read, and Larsen is well on his way to mastering this technique, as well.

Another major aspect of Larsen’s writing that makes it so accessible is his main characters. In Losing Touch, we watch helplessly as Morgan Dinsmore tries—and in many cases, fails—at adjusting to his newfound superpower. In The Blackening of Flesh, we likewise observe the lovably awkward social outcast, Jared Dix, and his bumbling transition into adulthood. Jared experiences the same emotions and insecurities that many teenagers feel whether they cop to them or not. In fact, I’m fairly certain everyone feels like an outsider during high school in one way or another—and certainly in adulthood at some point—just as almost every person between the ages of 22 and 50 has probably suffered through the same economic stress, shame at unemployment, and overall job uncertainty that Morgan wrestles with in Losing Touch. Larsen does a fantastic job of creating the everyman characters for which Stephen King is famous, and those types of characters are just as accessible for a reader as they are easy to root for. We recognize both Jared’s flaws and his positive attributes because he is so much like us, and that connection alone is enough to keep the pages turning.

Furthermore, Jared’s low self-esteem makes his possession by Capone-era gangsters all the more compelling due to the bold contrast between his innate timidity and the authoritative voice of the gangster inside his head. In true coming-of-age fashion, the gangster’s ghost first appears when Jared is about to kiss Monica in his basement, and hardly by accident. The possession and Jared’s subsequent rebellion against it, therefore, aren’t just horror tropes designed to scare us. They also represent the interjection of an adult identity into Jared’s teenaged self as he wanders into the interstitial space between high school (young adulthood) and whatever lies beyond (true adulthood). Monica triggers that transition in more ways than one, but it’s the conflict between the adult voice in his head and his high-school identity that completes the transformation. As bizarre as it sounds, being possessed by the ghost of a gangster is what finally makes Jared an assertive character willing to take action rather than allowing life to happen to him.

As interesting as Jared is as a character, though, the girl that introduces the macabre history of his house is perhaps equally fascinating in far less page-time. Monica functions not only as the catalyst for Jared’s literal transition to adulthood (through the physical attraction he has for her which he’s never felt to that degree), or even as the catalyst for the events in the story. She also represents the reader in a fascinating way—or rather, a hybrid of the reader and the author. Monica presents the conflict in the story by telling Jared about the murders in his house, engages in the conflict by triggering Jared’s first possession episode in the basement as mentioned above, and then separates herself from the action long enough to gain an outsider’s perspective before finally functioning as the aggregator that helps us make sense of the story’s ending. Monica isn’t particularly interested in Jared, and her interest in the house only extends far enough for her to visit it once and then begrudgingly accompany Jared to the historical museum. As a love interest, this makes her unique, because it’s rare that a ‘love interest’ (which is a fairly generous term in this case…especially the ‘love’ part) plays such a significant role in the plot without either (SORT OF MINOR SPOILER) winding up with the main character at the end of the book, or else sparking an epiphany in the main character that there’s a reason the person isn’t interested and either that they should be alone or the girl/boy he or she should have been with has been right under his or her nose the entire time. There is no real resolution with Monica, and while that leaves the reader with plenty of questions at the novel’s completion, it’s also true to life in many ways. A self-conscious character like Jared probably wouldn’t win the admiration of an older, “cooler” girl simply by expressing interest and happening to live in a house with a morbid past. Monica would likely be irritated that this weird younger boy has repeatedly called or visited her house and would give him the cold shoulder, then would also likely feel some remorse when that same boy…well, I won’t spoil the ending for you. The point is that having questions at the end of a novel isn’t always necessarily a bad thing, and accurately representing an unrequited infatuation that necessitates Monica being absent for most of the story certainly isn’t a bad thing, either. It’s a bold move by Larsen, though one which may have some readers wishing that there had been more of a resolution with her character. Maybe that’s why I like her role in the story so much.

Either way, if you love Stephen King, haunted houses, gangsters, and/or awkward unrequited romances, The Blackening of Flesh should be in your hands right now. You should be sucking its glory in through your eyeholes as we speak, and then hiring a cleaning service for your designated reading area because sucking anything through your eyeholes is messy and you probably won’t be able to see very well for a while. Chris Larsen is an up-and-coming force to be reckoned with in horror fiction. Do yourself a favor and pick up a copy of The Blackening of Flesh so you can say you liked Larsen before it was cool. With novels like this one and Losing Touch under his belt already and with plenty more to come, he’s bound to blow up eventually.

INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR

As both a reader and writer, I always have loads of questions for the author after I finish a book. I also think it’s important to give writers an opportunity to explain some of the how and why of their work, since they aren’t afforded that opportunity elsewhere when potential readers are considering their novel. To that end, I reached out to Chris with some questions that had been eating away at me since I finished The Blackening of Flesh.

JW: The Blackening of Flesh is an intriguing coming-of-age story about an easily relatable outcast. Is Jared’s slow transformation/possession emblematic of his transition into adulthood after graduation? Do you think the uncertainty of his future makes his decision at the end of the novel any easier (no spoilers)?

CL: In some ways, I think Jared grew up really fast--but then, we all do once we get our sheepskin. High school graduation is one of the clearest life boundaries contemporary human beings have. One day, you’re just a kid, and the next, you’re an adult--register for the draft, get a job or go to college. But growing up isn’t like that. It’s not like flipping a switch. We evolve slowly. Jared is painfully awkward, but I’m proud of the way he takes responsibility at the end, despite the unpleasantness. I didn’t know he had it in him. Maybe it was why he was born. It was his purpose in life.

JW: Aside from the number of lunar cycles that had passed since 1930, was there any other reason you decided to set the book in 1984 rather than modern day?

CL: There are elements of real history that inspired The Blackening of Flesh involving a family from my hometown. Those events happened in 1974, the year I was born. I moved the contemporary events up 10 years because I had a better grasp on pop culture and what was going on in the world at that time. I mean, I know what was going on in 1974, too, but I experienced 1984--the peak of Van Halen’s powers, the Reagan administration, and feathered haircuts. 1984 was the first year I think of as being ‘not that long ago’, which I suppose makes me old.

JW: Monica is an interesting character in that she is not only the catalyst for the events of the novel but can also be argued to represent the reader him/herself. She carries an outsider’s perspective that stirs the plot into motion and then is also able to observe with the rest of us. Would you also say that her character is representative of you as an author since she’s researching and observing events without playing an active role inside the house, and then serving as the aggregator at the end of the novel who helps the reader make sense of what happened?

CL: Monica was originally meant to move the plot along--to get things going. But yes, I think she operates as the interested cynic. She may not understand everything at the end, or if she does, she probably doesn’t 100% believe it. I think that’s what most of us would feel in the same set of circumstances. It’s going to be something she carries with her for a long time. Maybe forever. Believing what she saw would mean she would have to shoulder a lot of guilt. Maybe she didn’t start it, but if she was more observant, maybe she could have stopped it. So I hope in that sense she is not a stand in for the reader--there’s no reason for you to feel guilty. I, on the other hand.

JW: I had trouble finding anything on the Cerutti gang on a cursory Google search (granted I didn’t venture very far for results). Did the Cerutti murders really happen? How much of the story is based on historical events and what got you interested in writing about Prohibition era gangsters like Capone?

CL: I’ve always been interested in organized crime, and the Chicago Outfit (and its predecessors) in particular. There were a lot of smaller gangs running around before Capone kind of consolidated the rackets in the 1920s into the 1930s--the Genna Brothers, the North Side Gang, Ragen’s Colts, the Aiello Gang ... there were probably more. But to address your first point more directly, there are two possibilities: either there was no Cerutti gang, or they were wiped out so completely by Capone, that history has forgotten them. The murders as described in the book did not happen, but they certainly could have, and things like them happened on the regular back in the day.

JW: What was your process for writing the book? For instance, do you outline heavily? Did it take you fifteen years to complete or fifteen days? Do you have any rituals when you sit down and write?

CL: I never outline. It’s a weakness of mine. I just pick a starting point and go, go, go. It took me seven months to write The Blackening of Flesh. I usually write about 500 words a day. Sometimes it’s more, but it’s hardly ever less, unless I give myself a day off or I’m between projects. My most productive time of day is between when the kids come home and dinner time. If things are really clicking, I could be done in 20-30 minutes, but sometimes Facebook is too distracting, and then the sessions stretch out some.

JW: What project are you working on right now? Do you have anything in the pipeline for release?

CL: I have a few manuscripts that are pretty much done. One is a kind of a vampire novel, but not really. And the monster in that one is a good guy. Kind of. Another one is an eco-horror novel about bees. I have another one that I’m working on about a kid living with his grandparents during a “soft” zombie apocalypse called In the Shadow of the Shamblers. I know everybody says this, but the zombies aren’t the bad guys. They’re in it, and they drive a lot of what the human (living) characters do, but its more about what happens with them in the backdrop, rather than what happens with them directly.

JW: Where can people find more information on your books?

CL: Visit me at exlibrislarsen.com, my Amazon author page, or at events around the Midwest. I try to get out to pop cons about once a month. There’s quite a few out there if you know where to look. I like the smaller ones best because it doesn’t cost an arm and a leg to get in. If you want to see where I’m going to be, check out the “Appearances” page on my website.

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