In Line for A Midnight Marquee: Horror Business by Ryan Craig Bradford

First, a confession: I don’t like YA. It’s never been my cup of punch. Even Ruth Graham’s somewhat mean-spirited takedown of the genre, which struck many as harsh when it came out in Slate, indulged my deepest schadenfreude with a coarse blanket judgment I felt might be true. And so imagine my surprise (though passingly I know the author) when I read Horror Business by Ryan Craig Bradford and got my smugness rearranged.

YA’s what Horror Business is. Or anyway, it means to be. It follows the experience of one Jason Nightshade — the surname’s a reference, of course, to Jim Nightshade from Ray Bradbury’s YA-ish 1962 novel Something Wicked This Way Comes — a horror film buff and aspiring director growing up in the town of Silver Creek where children, including his twin brother Brian, have started going missing at an epidemic rate.

I mention Nightshade’s origins not to show what a consummate fanboy I am but rather how gleefully meta the novel, how lovingly keen on its own subject matter, a big part of what makes it tick. Jason is fond of reciting arcana from his favorite horror movies in times of distress: “The word vampire is never used in Near Dark, a movie about vampires. There are over ninety cuts in the Psycho shower scene and it took fives days to shoot; Anthony Perkins wasn’t there for any of it.”

The chapters devoted to Jason’s dog Brock, who is suffering from rabies or something far worse, take the titles of slice-and-dice films in a franchise: “Brock II,” “Brock III,” or “Brock: The Revenge.” Or take for another the following scene in a video store early on in the book, where Jason, an amateur auteur himself, is browsing titles on the wall: “I peruse the horror section, admiring the artwork on movie boxes, noting which ones have the scariest screenshot on the back. Re-Animator 2 is a good one; Chopping Mall is all right but it has the best name of any movie. Frankenhooker is one of my favorites. I watched that twice in one night before… When we were little, my brother and I were so scared of these boxes that we’d dare each other to look at them. Our mom made us stop when Brian started seeing monsters in the closet.”

Monsters in the movies, ergo monsters in the closet, is a common conceit in Bradford’s novel: from the blood-splatter posters that line Jason’s wall, to the pale moviegoers like “zombies” in line for a midnight marquee of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, to the Halloween windsocks adorning front porches throughout the dim, autumnal town, fictional horror infects the real world at every turn throughout the book. (Acknowledge the fact that you’re reading a novel, the rabbit-hole goes deeper still.) But the confluence here is not just atmospherics, and it’s more than a reprise of Scream-era antics. Bradford does something exceedingly smart and a whole lot of fun to see pop off the page: in writing a novel concerning the horror of child murder and rabid dogs, among a host of other fears, he sets his sights on something worse: the horror of being a teenage boy.

The plot of the novel is outwardly simple, yet at the same time difficult to describe. Jason’s brother Brian has gone balefully missing, along with eight other of Silver Creek’s children and Jason resolves not to find them, per se, but only to keep pushing on past their absence. He locks antlers with neighborhood bully Colt Stribalt (what better name for a bully is there?). He picks up with Ally, a neighborhood girl. He fucks around with Steve, his pal. He keeps writing his horror script, a Dead Ringers-Seven-and-Fight Club mélange, whose typescript intrudes on the script of the book (Jason’s tagline-dispatching, doppleganger detectives go by Cronenberg and Raimi). He navigates his home-life in the absence of his mother, who has gone off to spend some QT with her sister in the wake of her son’s several-month disappearance, which probably highlights the book’s finest writing: Jason’s run-ins with his glassy-eyed and alcoholic father — palming Jason stacks of 20’s, showing Jason around streamer trunks full of porn.

Jason’s dog Brock gets infected with evil. Something lurks in the graveyard with beady red eyes. Turn after turn leads to a climax not so much horrific as baffling. The novel’s ambiguities are more Lorrie Moore (see 1994’s Who Will Run the Frog Hospital?) than anything by Stephen King — a genre bending brought off best when they are in the former camp. Indeed the novel stacks up strongest on the level of quirky and standalone scenes, many of which are near-Freudian cracks at the terror of what adults do behind doors while you and your pals take in Hellraiser III.

The steamer trunk of porn is one: “I bend over the cartridges. They all have a white strip displaying my dad’s handwriting: Debbie Does Duluth, Bang Plane, Penetrating Gazes…” And then when his father insists on a test-run: “I open my eyes and she’s bent over the desk. They’re both so hairy.” Or when Jason and Ally commence heavy-petting in the gloomy shark-tank of the town’s new aquarium only to end up shark-attacked, as though to reprimand them for their adolescent urges: “I put my face close to get a better view. The shark lunges… Its jaws push forward and the teeth break off as they slam into the glass…Blood pours out of the shark’s snout — a dark red cloud that makes everything hard to see…I run the length of the wall to the door, and the shark follows me, leaving a trail of blood, like plane exhaust.” Or in this scene of self-abuse, wherein Jason reflects on encounters with Ally: “Moving faster, I replay the images: her lips, her breast, squeezing her nipple between my fingers, her soft moans. She grinds into me. In my fantasy I say yeah bitch through clenched teeth. This is the best material I’ve had in a long time.”

Which is to say that Bradford’s book is, yes, and no, a book for teens. In Graham’s essay “Against YA,” with a subtitle reading, “Read whatever you want. But you should feel embarrassed when what you’re reading was written for children,” Graham makes the argument that “…crucially, YA books present the teenage perspective in a fundamentally uncritical way. It’s not simply that YA readers are asked to immerse themselves in a character’s emotional life — that’s the trick of so much great fiction — but that they are asked to abandon the mature insights into that perspective that they (supposedly) have acquired as adults.” Fair enough. Not so is Bradford’s Horror Business. Anything but “uncritical” when it comes to portraying the “teenage perspective,” the book is an interrogation with a wild, ribald humor that makes it unique.

The writing, yes, is sometimes clunky (“I try to remember the consequence that happens when you wake a sleepwalker”); and the horror of the novel hangs loosely together in a way that banks too stringently on the reader being partial to a literary ending; and in one key respect, if you ask me at least, the novel goes zig where it should’ve gone zag (see the laws of reality bounding the story). But these are quibbles, all considered.

In showing the horny, mouth-breathing, bewildered, sweetly innocent horror of male adolescence, Bradford does books like The Fault in Our Stars and Eleanor & Park one better. He proves that he’s up to the challenging work of never underestimating young adult readers in their ability to sniff out and reckon with nuance, while never overestimating adult readers, either, for being too wise to remember their youth. Horror Business is for all: a warm outstretched hand, and a chilling reminder.

To purchase Horror Business, click here to be redirected to Ryan Craig Bradford’s site.

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