Exploring The Labyrinth
In this series, I will be reading every Brian Keene fiction book that has been published (and is still available in print), and then producing an essay on it. With the exception of Girl On The Glider, these essays will be based upon a first read of the books concerned. The article will assume you’ve read the book, and you should expect MASSIVE spoilers.
I hope you enjoy my voyage of discovery.
21: Clickers III
One of the really fun aspects of a project like this is tracking the development of an author as their career develops. In the case of Keene, part of that comes from his range, in terms of the number of horror subgenres he’s willing to dive into; splatterpunk, extreme horror, weird westerns, crime drama, historical settings and cosmic horror have all featured (in addition to frequent trips into apocalyptic horror of various flavours), and it’s been a joy seeing Keene apply his talents and concerns to each tale in turn, all while also building an underlying mythos that connects all his work.
That said, one of the other useful ways to track development is by checking in with a regular series. The Rising and City Of The Dead were written close enough together to only be of limited use in this regard (though I do think, even there, that City is the more accomplished of the two, with some brilliantly realised, high scale action horror setpieces). Ghost Walk is, in part, a sequel to Dark Hollow, but tonally it’s such a different story that, again, comparisons are challenging and arguably not super helpful.
So it’s a real thrill to be back on the Clickers beach for the third book in this popular pulp horror creature feature series. True, Keene didn’t write the first book in the series, but it’s been three years in between his work on Clickers II and this release – which, given Keene’s prolific level of output in this period, means there were six titles produced between II and III. Also true, these books were co-authored with JF Gonzalez, which complicates things at least a bit. Still, as I read Clickers III, I was struck by how much more fun I was having than during the previous outing. Granted, as I noted in that essay, the reasons I wasn’t having an especially good time were not, primarily, an artefact of the writing, but rather of the time in which I came to read it; still, having had time to reflect, I think even allowing for that, Clickers III was a stronger outing than either of the previous novels in the series, and certainly it’s my personal favourite so far
For starters, I really enjoyed the characters in this piece. Alongside Jennifer Wasco (whose PTSD recovery from book 2 takes one hell of a beating in the opening chapter), there’s the return of Tony Genova (now living in federal witness protection as Larry DiMazzio, following the events of the previous novel). He’s a fascinating character, in many ways a classic Keene antihero; he’s done a lot of Very Bad Things, and doesn’t seem especially troubled by them, yet he has a clear code he does live by, and a combination of hyper competence (within his very particular set of skills) alongside a level of cynical realism that almost reaches the level of a superpower makes for a compelling and strangely heroic character. And he’s paired with Clark Arroyo, ex-Secret Service, who’s been having an eventful time since shooting President Tyler in the back of the head in the climax of book 2. It’d take too much time to cover the political fallout from the events of the last book, but I loved how Keene and Gonzalez mapped out the possible consequences, and frankly, for me, it also benefited from having less resonance with the then-current events that had so marred my enjoyment of the previous entry. Instead, we’re deep in paranoid, bloody pulp political thriller territory, which matches perfectly with the tone of the novel as a whole; especially when it collides with The Black Lodge, a group that have featured occasionally in past stories and who feel at this point to be a major part of Keene’s mythos.
In fact, let’s take a moment to talk about that, too – I can first remember reading about them in the Earthworm Gods short story collection (Tales From The End Of The World). In that story, my fuzzy recollection is that they were attempting to murder (or maybe sacrifice) a child in order to prevent that apocalypse from reaching its conclusion. Someone better at this than me will one day produce a book that explains the way all the various novels interconnect in the Keene multiverse (Mapping The Labyrinth, maybe?). I’m more into letting it wash over me as part of the overall reading experience, taking each piece on its own terms. That said, Keene’s been clear many times that all his work does takes place in a shared multiverse, including his collaborations, and as a lay reader working his way through the canon, it’s a really fun moment when a hitherto background player suddenly steps into centre stage. The Lodge themselves remind me a lot of Levi Stoltzfus (previously discussed in my essays on Shades and Ghost Walk); they share a similar level of understanding of the metaphysics of the world, and there’s a similar bleak fatalism to their solutions. In both cases, there’s an exploration of characters who understand that, to secure salvation, blood will have to be spilled.
Now, in my own fiction, one of the obsessive themes I return to is what people will do when they’re faced with no good options. So the appeal of a person or organisation that knows how to save the world, and what the cost must be, is obvious. Sure, you could take a step back and ask how they really know, if there might not be some other way… but this is horror, baby, not Doctor Who; over there (and, to be clear, I love it over there, too) there’s the punch the air thrill of the person who can think around corners saving the impossible day, and done well, such stories are an incredible rush.
But I think there’s value to this, too. Getting down into the guts of the conundrum of ‘what if fatalism is actually correct?’ We’ll come back to elements of this when we talk about the next novella in this series, Darkness on the Edge of Town, but at the heart of this pulp action-horror tale about gigantic acid spitting carnivorous crustaceans (and behind them the Old Ones, of course, of whom the Clickers are merely a symptom) lies a brutal, and ultimately kind of unanswerable moral dilemma: What do you do when the only way to save the world is to kill someone, or let them die? Never mind an abstract trolley problem, how does it feel when it’s your finger on the trigger?
And of course, the insanity of the situation helps, it exacerbates the dilemma, because, like Johnny in The Dead Zone, you know it to your bones but you’ll never be able to prove it.
This is, as I believe the kids used to say, the good shit.
Anyhow. Aside entirely from that, Clickers III is an absolute blast; a creature feature romp with all the splatterpunk setpieces of dismemberment and mutilation that you could ask for, served up with lean, hungry prose that pulls you through the action paced chapters like the brilliant popcorn horror movies this series feels like a loving homage to. It’s by far my favourite entry in the series so far, and I’m really looking forward to seeing what happens next.
But/and/also – under the hood is a moral dilemma, a question being asked, that’s as serious as a heart attack.
And I fucking love that. Because pulp does not – has never meant – dumb, shallow, or one dimensional, despite the endless sneering of some critics. It’s possible – hell, I’d argue, desirable – to be both entertaining and thoughtful, to provide a window into another world for your readers to fall through for a little while that returns them safe and sound to their couch at the end… but can also leave them with some questions there are no easy answers for.
This may be a big part of why I gravitate to horror, as I think about it; regardless of where the greats of the genre fall on the pulp/literary spectrum (and, sure, there’s a whole essay, if not book, examining why that’s even presented as a dichotomy in the first place, but I’ve not had enough to drink and I’m trying to stay at least vaguely on topic, here), I think they’re united in this understanding; that not only is it a false dichotomy to suggest that a story is either entertaining or serious, but that the best work, the stuff that really gets under your skin, is the work that commits wholeheartedly to both.
So, sure, I don’t have a whole lot more to say about Clickers III in particular; not because it’s bad, but because it’s very, very good, in ways which typify Keene’s approach to this mode of horror, and which I’ve covered at length elsewhere in this series. But I am saying, in addition to being a bloody and gruesome good time, this novel is actually digging into some deep, tough ideas, and doing so without either glib romanticism or fascicle cynicism. Or, indeed, a desire to provide an answer.
I find that admirable. And, next entry, we’re going to spend a lot more time digging into this aspect of Keene’s work, as we’re invited to take a trip into The Darkness at the Edge of Town.
Put a lit candle in your window, and I’ll see you then.
Clickers III: Dagon Rising
They thought it was over, but the second wave was only the beginning…
In the aftermath of the Clickers and Dark Ones’ siege and a coup against an insane President, America rebuilds. Change has come, and a better future is promised to all. But promises can be broken and there may be no future at all because deep beneath the ocean, a new terror awaits. Dagon, god of the Dark Ones, is waking up…and if humanity doesn’t stop him, then mankind will face extinction.
Trapped on a South Pacific Island, the cast of Clickers and Clickers 2: The Next Wave join forces with a mysterious group of occult agents to face off against the Clickers, the Dark Ones, Dagon and an all-new threat-the deadly obsidian Clickers. The stakes have never been higher. Dagon is rising… and humanity will fall.
Clickers III: Dagon Rising – It’s more giant monster carnage and B-movie fun as only J. F. Gonzalez and Brian Keene can bring you.