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Craig Spector
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2005

Tor / Tom Doherty Associates
US Hardcover First Edition
ISBN 0-765-30660-3
Publication Date: 04-12-2005
254 Pages; $23.95
Date Reviewed: 05-03-05

Index: Horror

As the world around us grows increasingly dire, horror fiction is looking better and better to a growing audience. In his new horror novel from Tor, 'Underground', Craig Spector plays the race card, as well as the gore card and just about every other card you've ever seen emerge from his voluminous sleeve. There's no filler in this lean and mean novel, just the sort of throbbing gristle that helped to define the splatterpunk genre. In the intervening years, the world has embraced splatterpunk, so scenes that once would have set our teeth on edge in print are now prime-time TV fodder. Humans are eviscerated seven nights a week in living color. Readers might presume that this would leave horror writers in a quandary, since the tools of their trade are now part and parcel of mainstream entertainment. But as 'Underground' amply demonstrates, while gore might have been the most noticeable aspect of great splatterpunk fiction, it certainly was not the most important.

'Underground' plays off the old "it was twenty years ago today" format. So, twenty years ago a group of seven friends in high school, headed for college, decide to have one last fling at the old Custis mansion, since Josh Custis can get the keys. Unfortunately for them, one of their number, Seth, decides that it's in everybody's interest that they drop acid whether they want to or not. How could they know that Josh's ancestors have created a very private but very populous hell that lies just on the other side of the mirrors in the mansion? There's no way they could, so what follows is not really their fault. Well, you can blame Seth, but then Seth pays for his mistake. Big time. Now, the "Underground" as they pretentiously named themselves back in the day, have to return to Custis mansion to see if they can undo not only what they did, but something far worse.

'Underground' wastes little time in setting up a sort of satanic 'Return of the Secaucus 7' scenario against a background of the horrors behind the antebellum South. Spector works with economy and muscle. We get a group of characters, black and white, with a minimum of fuss and a maximum of action. Spector does a couple of clever twists here, playing with the readers' perceptions as to whether or not a particular character is black. He gives you enough to grab on to and not a whit more, because he's really damn busy building up few nice chilling scenes and a plot rocket that maxes out fast and keeps going to till a lot of stuff explodes.

'Underground' is the kind of novel that will remind readers -- or show them for the first time -- why horror became so popular, and why it's a genre that will not go away. Spector uses the supernatural elements here to externalize all the internal ugliness that underlies our ability to edit history into something we can tolerate. Here in the twenty-first century, it's easy to feel safe from our heritage of slavery and torture. But that heritage lives on. As much as we'd like to believe otherwise, we're never beyond slavery and torture. They just get a regular facelift. As Spector slaps bloody flesh onto the skeletons in our closet, he turns them into mirror images for our rather deadly foibles.

Don't think for a moment, however that you’re going to get a lecture here. Spector is having too much fun slicing and dicing and shredding and deading his cast. He keeps the focus tight and the plot tighter. If horror were to have a hard-boiled subgenre, then 'Underground' would be a prime example. It's all muscle, blood and flying bits of bone. But what readers will find is that the gore, while fairly substantial, is not the draw. Spector's rock-and-roll prose, his you-know-them characters, his bullet-to-the-brain plot are what's important. As it happens, storytelling skills, characterization and good prose are what made splatterpunk, and what make 'Underground' compelling reading. Gore is just a color. All shades of red.

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