H.P. Lovecraft wrote that the oldest and strongest emotion of mankind was fear. He went on to explain that the oldest and strongest type of fear was that of the unknown. (To HPL, this was some combination of women, foreigners and tentacle-beasts.)
Lovecraft's stories didn't crystallise the "unknown" into a single slumbering entity, buried underneath the oceans or on a far off planet - his terror was surrounding and omnipresent. Cthulhu worshippers are slavishly devoted to their gelatinous Godzilla, but, more pertinently, they're everywhere. The most disconcerting part of "The Call of Cthulhu" is the way that the investigators keep dropping dead in the street - evidence of a global conspiracy with its own tentacles in every possible pie. Cthulhu may be sleeping, but his minions are very, very attentive.
In that cheerful spirit, this week we'll be going through a few books that try (with varying degrees of success) to tap into that same fear - everyone is out to get you.
First up, Ethan Cross' The Shepherd (2012).
The Shepherd got stonking reviews in the US, which, to be up front about it, baffles me. The novel, a debut, features a hard-boiled drifter named Marcus, who gets tangled up with a twisted serial killer. In the background, a national conspiracy does some convoluted plotting. All these elements (mostly) coalesce into a (not so) shocking conclusion and a shameless bid for sequels.
Marcus is introduced as a Reacher-like badass. His first on-page moments involve thumping six hefty truckers into unconsciousness because they had the temerity to be ungentlemanly to a pretty waitress.* This brings Marcus to the attention of the town's sheriff (and the waitress' father, in possibly the least contrived of the book's many ridiculous connections), who warns Marcus not to do anything shifty and/or "not to break his daughter's heart" in the most hoary way possible.
Marcus immediately does the former while attempting the latter. While on a very intense date with the foxy waitress, Marcus discovers that his next door neighbor has been chopped into tiny pieces by a serial killer. After proving his exceptional law enforcement training by wandering blithely through the crime scene and getting covered in blood, Marcus calls the sheriff. Shockingly, Marcus is now a suspect, and his inexplicably irritable attitude towards the local deputies doesn't help.
Fortunately, The Shepherd contains as many twists as is possible to write into the length of one airport thriller (domestic flights only). Not only is Marcus falsely accused of murder, but the sheriff reveals himself to be a Big Bad! No, wait, he's defying due process in order to achieve "the greater good"! But wait, he's working for the Mafia! Then the FBI! Then the Mafia again! Then the greater good! Every! Page! Has! A! Reveal!
Nor is the Excitement! of The Shepherd linked only to its Big Bad(-Good-Bad-Good-Again). Marcus has a mysterious past that involves being a cop and/or vigilante and/or serial-killer-executioner! He's torn and tormented! There's a senator who's a serial rapist, deputies that may be good guys, thugs or Orcs, a President who's either an Evil Warlord or the Ultimate Force for Good, a brother of the President who's also either an Evil Warlord or the Ultimate Force for Good, an FBI agent who's a good guy or a traitor or a good guy again and a scheme that may or may not involve an assassination that no one actually cares about of a person who isn't relevant to the book.
Marcus, to his credit, ignores most of this and ruggedly plows forward. He's far too self-absorbed to bother with the seven-layer conspiracy nachos being baked around him. Marcus does fall in love (first date love, naturally - with whatshername), which is awfully sweet. And spends a lot of time peering into the heart of darkness, which is less cuddly. If there's one thread that tenuously binds the thousand floppy noodles of plot, it is The Shepherd's thesis that all men have a touch of evil about them. Marcus is in touch with his touch - he knows that he can kill. His progression (such as it is) is the grudging acknowledgement that that's ok. There are truly evil men out there that deserve to be killed by the imperfectly righteous. Marcus is a born "shepherd" - a man with a big stick than can do what the sheep cannot. (The use of "men" is intentional. The women in The Shepherd are: a) victim, b) victim saved by husband, c) victim, d) victim saved by love of her children and e) waitress-hostage-hostage-hostage-love-interest-hostage-waitress.)
But to make shepherds necessary, there must be wolves. If The Shepherd has any redeeming feature, it is in its true villain, the hilariously named Francis Ackerman Jr. Ackerman is raised as the ultimate serial killer - tortured and indoctrinated by his psychiatrist father as part of an experiment to prove... something. Whatever it is, it didn't work. Ackerman now prowls the country messily eviscerating people and making phone calls to his imaginary friends. Although a far cry from the charismatic terror of the early Hannibal Lecter (or even the sheer weirdness of Buffalo Bill), Ackerman's shtick makes him at least vaguely entertaining (in a splatterpunk way).
At the very least, it makes him honest: Ackerman studied a thousand other serial killers and imitates the tricks he found the most interesting. Clearly no better metaphor could exist for the book itself. (See, Francis Ackerman collects famous monsters. While Marcus Aurelius - yes, that's his name - struggles to control his destructive emotions. Layers upon layers!)
Mr. Cross has a vivid imagination when it comes to set-piece action scenes, although his desperate quest for fast-paced cinematic excitement is sadly underpinned by an overly repetitive writing style. Ackerman is constantly referred to as "the killer", for example, just as the Sheriff is always "the Sheriff".** There's also the sporadic and unfortunate use of the word "gonna". The killer does this, the Sheriff does that, the killer does this again, everything gonna explode.
The Shepherd's shameless bid for unpredictability has the reverse result. When all realism goes out the window, it becomes too easy to spot the next twist. To create an atmosphere of fear, there needs to be some sense of underlying possibility - a thought that this could happen. This is especially true when it comes to conspiracy theories, whose very raison d'être is to be in some way possible. In The Shepherd, the stereotypical fights the improbable against a backdrop of the ludicrous. How the book has a cover quote from Andrew Gross saying "all-too-real" baffles me, as I found The Shepherd to be anything but.
*I can't remember her name. My guilt is assuaged by the fact that not one of the 153 Amazon reviews of The Shepherd mentions waitress-hostage-love-interest-lady by name. Apparently she's pretty forgettable. Please send all mail c/o "The Refrigerator".
**No wonder I can't remember anyone's name. The author can't either.