Monday, September 9, 2013

The Pen Name review

     Stephen King once wrote that “Nightmares exist outside of logic, and there’s little fun to be had in explanations; they’re antithetical to the poetry of fear." In a horror story, the victim keeps asking "Why?" But there can be no explanation, and there shouldn’t be one. The unanswered mystery is what stays with us the longest, and it’s what we’ll remember in the end. I am Alan Wake. I am a writer.

    This is the opening quote of the Alan Wake video game. The Pen Name shares a great deal in common with said work. Both are acknowledged tributes to Stephen King's writing, both are about writers writing manuscripts for "questionable" publishers, and both involve the writer gradually losing their sanity.

    The premise of the novel is Ben Little is a self-published author filled with the sort of dreams and aspirations many writers have when they first start the business. They believe they will be successful and have creative control. What follows is, at first, a wish-fulfillment fantasy of unparalleled unlikelihood.

    A New York Times bestselling author wants to collaborate with him and gives him an advance of $15,000 for their work together. It's ludicrous but works with the dream logic which follows--chronicling Ben's descent into a horrific writing-themed Wonderland of improbable events.

    I won't spoil what happens next but author David Jacob Knight has obviously had bad experiences with publishers in the past. There's enough truth in the text to give the thing a kind of eerie plausibility right until the very end. The fact Ben Little isn't a completely reliable narrator, even to himself, lends the story a believability necessary for good horror.

    Horror stories don't have to be realistic but you do have to make sense and this certainly does once you get past the (deliberately) impossible opening offer our hero is made. I cringed and bit my nails more at the realistic abuses Ben Little suffered versus the more surreal ones. Horror fans should note this work is definitely supernatural but relatively light on special effects.

I    It falls squarely into the Magical Realism genre with questions as to whether Ben is experiencing anything mystical at all. This helps keep the book grounded and one never knows whether our hero is dealing with the supernatural or a product of the protagonist's overactive imagination.

    The confusion between the real and unreal is to be expected in books starring authors but David Jacob Knight nails this mixture. Indeed, the entire book can be as a journey through the penumbra of the imagination and material.
    The book is at its best dealing with Ben Little, Jack Fleischer, the Agent, and Burke. Anything which deals with the publishing industry and the writing process is gold. I'm less enamored with the author's depiction of Ben Little's family life.

    We're meant to sympathize with his wife's concerns with our hero's situation but she instead comes across as shrewish. I will say, however, I loved Ben's son who is just the right mix of adorable and disturbing. You know, as little boys should be. The cast is relatively small and this helps create a claustrophobic sense of our heroes' condition.

    The book is slightly flawed. The author's loving nods to Stephen King are a little too blatant and distract from the narrative--reminding us this is a work of fiction. Likewise, the character of Robert Coffey (His name being a Green Mile homage) is a little convenient. Still, I can't say these problems detracted too much from the narrative. I also liked the subtle digs made at Tom Clancy using Robert as a stand-in.

    Fans of "The Dark Half", "Bag of Bones", and other writer-hero works by Stephen King will probably enjoy this book more than others. It references the author without being derivative. While I wouldn't put the writing duo at his level, this book was definitely enjoyable and scary. I managed to finish it in an afternoon and think most readers will find it an easy and worthwhile read.

    You won't be disappointed.


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