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Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Burning the Middle Ground by L. Andrew Cooper (REVIEW)

"A character-driven sensibility like Stephen King's and a flair for the bizarre like Bentley Little's delivers."

There you have it, the single line in the cover blurb for Burning the Middle Ground that absolutely demanded I give it a read. Yes, the mention of religious conspiracy, supernatural mind control, and bodies with the eyes and tongues removed certainly caught my eye, and the overall story line sounded intriguing, but it was with the promise of a King/Little mash-up that really got me excited.

While I wouldn't go so far as to call L. Andrew Cooper the next King or Little, at least not based on his debut, I can definitely see the influences in his writing. Like King, he presents us with a largely character driven tale, set in a small town, where dialogue tells a significant piece of the story. Ronald Glassner, the opportunistic journalist, is a great character - someone with whom we can identify or relate, but with a darker, selfish (or perhaps self-serving) edge that we'd rather not admit exists within ourselves. Brian McCullough is a great sympathetic character, a young man who has experienced an unimaginable tragedy, and who simply cannot let go of the past, or his quest for answers.

The various inhabitants of Kenning, with whom we come into contact through the novel, are largely of the stock variety, but given enough personality to keep them distinct and alive in the reader's mind. As for the villains of the piece, it's hard to say much about them without getting into spoiler territory, but Jake Warren could definitely have slipped, crawled, and slithered is way out of Cooper's second source of inspiration. Everything about the man, particularly his creepy hypnotic charm, is just so well-suited to one of Little's tales.

Where I found Cooper hasn't quite nailed the technique of the masters is in his pacing. This a good book, an exciting story filled with interesting characters, but there is a lot of history and back-story that need to be imparted for it to work. King generally does back-story in snippets and flashbacks, teasing us with the significance of it all, while Little tends to lean on grandiose speeches and scenes of exposition, dropping a bomb of revelations upon us. Here, Cooper interrupts the flow of his story for an extended middle piece that shifts the focus of the story in terms of characters, plot, and feel. It's interesting enough on its own, but oddly placed, and too long for what it's intended to do.

Overall, despite the fiendishly malevolent touches of Little-inspired evil throughout the novel, this is less his brand of over-the-top horror, and more King's brand of subtle, unsettling, dread. It plays out very well, carried along, not just by the characters, but by the 'feel' of the small town. It's a very down-to-earth story, in many respects, driven by human emotion, interaction, and need. Most importantly, it's a story that raises a lot of questions as to 'how' and 'why' throughout, and which largely delivers on the answers. A great horror novel lives or dies by its resolution, and Cooper does a fine job of providing the pay-off to his tale.

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About L. Andrew Cooper:
L. Andrew Cooper thinks the smartest people like horror, fantasy, and sci-fi. Early in life, he couldn’t handle the scary stuff–he’d sneak and watch horror films and then keep his parents up all night with his nightmares. In the third grade, he finally convinced his parents to let him read grownup horror novels: he started with Stephen King’s Firestarter, and by grade five, he was doing book reports on The Stand.

When his parents weren’t being kept up late by his nightmares, they worried that his fascination with horror fiction would keep him from experiencing more respectable culture. That all changed when he transitioned from his public high school in the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia to uber-respectable Harvard University, where he studied English Literature. From there, he went on to get a Ph.D. in English from Princeton, turning his longstanding engagement with horror into a dissertation. The dissertation became the basis for his first book, Gothic Realities (2010). More recently, his obsession with horror movies turned into a book about one of his favorite directors, Dario Argento (2012). He also co-edited the textbook Monsters (2012), an attempt to infect others with the idea that scary things are worth people’s serious attention.

After living in Florida, South Carolina, Georgia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, and California, Andrew now lives in Louisville, Kentucky, where he teaches at the University of Louisville and chairs the board of the Louisville Film Society, the city’s premiere movie-buff institution. Burning the Middle Ground is his debut novel.

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