Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Store by Bentley Little

Small American towns as the epicenter for strange goings on - the hallmarks for many writers of horror fiction. And yet we keep coming back to these tales where sleepy, conservative municipalities are transformed into cauldrons on the cusp of Hell. Midnight by Dean Koontz showcased what would happen to a modern town if HG Well's Dr Moreau happened to drop by - Peter Straub has transformed a fictional town called Millhaven into a realm where the serial killer has a permanent home. And Needful Things by Stephen King is perhaps the penultimate tome whereby destruction takes a town by the throat.

Now Bentley Little has his chance to cut a swath on the map with the hot, baking towns of
Arizona as the centerpiece for mayhem.

Do not be fooled by the blurb on the back, or the title of this story. Perhaps parts of it are a homage to Needful Things, but Bentley stamps his mark with his own unique brand of fiction.

Welcome to Juniper,
, the off-the-map dessert town where retail giant The Store has chosen for its new location. Now everything you could want is under one roof, at unbelievable prices. But you'd better be careful what you wish for; this place demands something of its customers that goes beyond brand loyalty.

Our protagonist, Bill Davies, is the driving force behind this novel that sees the town he loves becoming swallowed by the giant commercialism of The Store: local businesses are forced to shut their doors; agents of The Store have infiltrated the echelons of local government, making it all but impossible to operate independently. The entire town is slowly but surely pinned under the thumb of corporate supremacy and unless Bill can usurp them by some means, Juniper will fall under the spell of its charismatic owners and converted employees.

The Store itself is creepy. Although inside it resembles nothing so much as a K-Mart on steroids, the objects its sells become perverted and are converted into The Store home brands. The employees are issued with Store-worker handbooks that are like malign bibles glorifying the Hugh-Heffner-ish owner Newman King.

That said, Bentley's heroes are likable and engaging. He seems to have an overt grasp of local small town milieu and their inner workings. The chapters are structured cleanly and effectively to resemble what they should be: maps of intent. Not only is the writing mature, but the dialogue is established and at times hilarious. We know some of these people: they are our neighbors, friends, and are easily recognizable.

Now we come to the pitfalls: although not directly part of the this novel per say, I've had a little difficulty fathoming why such talented authors should succumb to titles with limited imagination. Little gives us headings such as: The University, The Mailman, The Resort, The Ignored, and The Revelation. Appalachian writer Scott Nicholson has a similar tact. The perpetual use of The can give the reader a sterile, almost clinical feeling that flees away from the story.

After delving through four hundred pages, we wait for the spooky things to be resolved: just what, exactly, are those puppet things called the Night Managers crawling around the store at night? Who is the big-wig Newman King? What does he want from this community besides control? Unfortunately, Little loses himself in these areas, and closure is not one of his strong points. Horror fiction, so flexible when it comes to these elements, should not be shied away from. There are a multitude of revelations one can employ, yet Little tries his best to avoid them. It's a small weakness in an otherwise engaging novel.