Monday, February 18, 2013

Eli Roth and I Find Common Ground at Hemlock Grove

Note: Let me warn you, dear readers, that the following review contains one strong profanity used in quotation.

As I was leaving the library with Brian McGreevy's Hemlock Grove in hand, I flipped it over, started perusing the blurbs, and stopped dead in my tracks as the following jumped out at me:
"A wonderfully creative and twisted reinvention of classic monster archetypes, wrapped up in a mysterious thriller. I loved it. Brian McGreevy is a welcome new voice in horror literature, but be warned: it's not for the faint of heart, or stomach."

- Eli Roth, director of Hostel
Back when I worked for The Magazine, I reviewed a movie called Cabin Fever about a bunch of college-aged partiers who head out for a weekend in the woods and come down with necrotizing fasciitis. (That's the flesh-eating disease that can strip away your skin and muscle in a matter of days.) Few films turn my stomach, but Cabin Fever made it spin like a centrifuge. Now would be the perfect time to describe its various splattery scenes, but I just had my coffee, so I'll refrain. Let's say it was downright gross on every level. And who do you suppose directed it? You guessed right: Eli Roth. Back-cover kudos are supposed to sell a book, but I nearly turned around right there and dropped Hemlock Grove back into the "Return" bin. You know what, though? I'm glad I didn't.

Hemlock Grove, Pennsylvania, isn't an ordinary place. The Godfrey family dominates the town, both in economically and architecturally. Years ago, the Godfrey's bolstered the area through steel, but in the post-industrial age they've moved on to biotech. A pale monolith dedicated to research (and dubbed The White Tower by residents) looms over Hemlock Grove as a testimony to their investing foresight. However, the clan owes its reputation as much to its members' individual oddities as their money. Patriarch JR Godfrey died years ago, but his icy widow Susan rules his empire -- and her family -- with an iron grip. Her teenage daughter, Shelley, draws more than her share of stares whenever she goes into town. Why? For one thing, she's a mute giant with luminescent skin. For another, she wears dirt-filled plastic cubes for shoes. But her brother, Roman, is even stranger. Always immaculately attired and bearing a mint tin filled with all sorts of illicit pharmacological substances, he possesses the odd ability of being able to convince people to do anything simply through the sound of his voice. On the opposite side of the social spectrum, there's the gypsy kid Peter Rumancek. Peter's mostly normal -- except for that whole werewolf thing. His lycanthropy will thrust he and Roman together, because young women are dying from animal attacks in Hemlock Grove, and their wounds seem to have been inflicted by some sort of very, very large dog ...

Where to begin with a book as wildly inventive as Hemlock Grove? Let's start with McGreevy's influences. He's pulling from a little bit of everything related to horror and gothic. Werewolf lore turns up (obviously), but so do psychic warfare, all those Golden Age of SF mad scientist stories, secret Catholic societies, gypsy myths, and Frankenstein. What's more, literary influences shine through in both his allusions -- Christina Rossetti's "Goblin Market" plays an important role in the plot -- and style. McGreevy can flat out write. Unfortunately, some of his attempts to simultaneously navigate the literary peaks and pop culture valleys come off as self-consciously cutesy. Hemlock Grove is the kind of book where a freakishly brilliant researcher can say of his one-time boss, "Just as Westinghouse patronized the future in alternating current, JR was a man more concerned with what lay past the horizon than with clinging with both hands to the sagging teat of orthodoxy. He was not, to use the vernacular, a complete fuckwit. Which cannot be said of many of my contemporaries." You get the idea: Nearly everyone sounds like a foul-mouthed PhD student. Of course, outlandishness is part of the novel's appeal. The characters and plot are so wild that you keep flipping pages to see if McGreevy can wrap things up without leaving more loose ends than a torn sweater. And he manages to in an impressive way, although I definitely could've done without the two violent sex scenes, one of which was consensual, the other definitely not. I didn't like that, although I did like Hemlock Grove in the end. Of course, Eli Roth liked it too. Take that for what it's worth.

(Picture: CC 2010 by Wade Franklin; HT:

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