Friday, January 3, 2020

"14," by Peter Clines--Fiction Review

I wanted my first review to be of “14” by Peter Clines.

Peter Clines

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

It’s neo-Lovecraftian horror that somehow manages to feel very light, like an episode of friends that takes an unexpected hardcore turn into Cthulu-Ville.  I also love its ensemble cast of characters who are all compelling in their own ways. Finally, and the biggest reason I love this book, I’m enchanted by the vocal talents of its narrator, Ray Porter, for the audiobook edition—yes, I’m one of those.

“14” does exactly what I want in modern-day cosmic horror. It keeps all the stakes of perception stretching nightmares, and it updates the characters to make them more relatable than just the stuffy professor type who stumbles upon a moldy old book. So, when bad things start happening to the characters, you genuinely care about their fates. Lovecraft, a pioneer of stories like this, didn’t always bother to name his characters, making it hard to care about them when things from beyond the veil of ordinary reality drove them insane. Oh no—that… guy—went nuts and jumped out of a window! I will forever remember fondly how frightened he was of fish people. 

I credit Peter Clines for reawakening my enthusiasm for writing and great storytelling at a time when I had walked away from this art form. It is my favorite novel that I’ve read as an adult, it’s the first book I always recommend, and you should buy it.

What I don’t love about this book:

There isn’t much of anything I don’t like about “14,” which isn’t to say that it’s a perfect work of literature—I don’t believe perfection is possible. Subjectively, for me, all of its constituent elements of plot and character development work in a way I find pleasing. I often find myself picking a random moment in the story and relistening to the rest of the book from there—yes, sometimes that’s the very beginning—in an attempt to inhabit that headspace I experienced the first time I read the novel. Now I get that this is starting to sound like more reasons why I love this book, dear probably no other human being ever until aliens from Alpha Centauri are sifting through the wreckage of our collapsed society and only come across my blog to ascertain what our culture was like reader. But, where I’m going with this is with great familiarity inevitably, you can’t help but see little defects.

First off, as much as I love the dialog between characters, there are a few kitschy moments. The major one I’m thinking of is one character mentions Torchwood—which I’ve never seen, and I’m sure is a lovely program—but nobody in a group of people greater than three, who vary wildly in demographics, such as age group, asks, “what’s that again?” Everyone gets it, and the banter continues without missing a beat, which was probably a conscious decision by the author to keep the flow going, but I’d argue it feels a tad inauthentic.

This leads to my next point, every character, who are the protagonists—or orbit the protagonists in a friendly way, share essentially the same sense of humor, a light form of sarcastic gallows, which if you’ve read the preceding paragraphs, you’ll understand why it resonates with me. Groups of friends do tend to have similar senses of humor but are less likely, to have the exact same sense of humor, differences in experiences make that sort of thing unlikely. This means that how the characters talk doesn’t always sound exactly like how people actually talk. I would also argue that in fiction, we don’t really want characters to talk precisely how people actually speak in the real world, because real-world people do things like, um, you know add words and things improbably, and like, um, incorrectly, and repetitively, while sorta babbling on, stalling for time, because they sorta drift off, forgetting their original, you know, point they were driving at, at the beginning of their run-on sentence.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story opens with a man running away from a group of people while bleeding to death. He knows he’s going to die and is cool with it, just so long as the mysterious people don’t catch him and get him to reveal something that would kill everyone—not a few people, or a lot of people, all the people.

Then bam—we make some unknowable jump in time and meet our protagonist Nate Tucker at a party in a bar that he doesn’t want to be at, thinking about how much he doesn’t want to be there. Nate’s main problems in life are he’s poor, directionless in life, and needs to find new housing in Los Angeles, soon. Luckily, someone at the party gives Nate a tip about an old brownstone apartment building with ridiculously cheap rent—an obvious too-good-to-be-true scenario that our hero probably recognizes but doesn’t have any other options to consider.

Nate ends up checking out the building and moves in—despite encountering a jade green cockroach. The Kavach building, the name of the apartment building, provides Nate with a spacious apartment near his job—a job he hates and is cheap rent, as advertised. He even likes most of the eccentric neighbors that he meets while settling into the building. Then mysteries, little at first, start piling up, and curiosity gets the better of Nate, leading him to casually investigate the odd black light in his apartment, which is always a black light no matter what light bulb is in the socket. Eventually, one of his neighbors, a woman named Veek, reveals a big thing to Nate that everyone overlooks about the Kavach building—there are no powerlines attached to the building, and yet every apartment clearly has electricity.

As the story unfolds, Nate and Veek involve their other neighbors in their investigations while simultaneously trying to keep their efforts secret from the building manager, who strongly discourages any inquiry about the Kavach building. So strongly, in fact, he even threatens to have them evicted should they continue, and everyone that lives in the Kavach building has nowhere else to go should that happen. It’s even proposed that they were all selected by the rental company for just that quality. The theory is this would limit any chance anyone would ask questions.

Finally, despite all discouragement, the residents of the Kavach building discover what the central mystery is about their home. The building isn’t a building—it’s a self-sustaining machine, camouflaged as a building. The purpose given to this machine by its creator, who was murdered at the beginning of the story, is to save the world. It’s holding back literal Lovecraft-style monsters from invading the earth. Also, like any good Lovecraft-inspired story, some cultists worship these monsters and want to help them do just that, which the residents of the Kavach building have to thwart before the end.


“14” is a story written in a Neo-Lovecraftian style, which, if you haven’t read H.P. Lovecraft or don’t even have a passing knowledge of his work, then some aspects of “14,” won’t work as well. Now, I’m not saying those plot points don’t work within the framework of the story, just that outside knowledge enhances the experience. A lot of literature, or story-tellin, if you don’t like that high falutin word, is referential in some way. It’s why bad Shakespeare shows up in a lot of fiction, which my rule of thumb for by-the-by is if it’s obvious—where two characters are described as star-crossed lovers or anyone, anywhere says, “to be or not to be”—then it’s corny cliché and therefore signifying nothing.

An even mixture of obvious Lovecraft references and not so obvious ones, “14” mentions Howard Phillips Lovecraft by name, and Lovecraft’s grandfather Whipple Van Buren Phillips—actual name Whipple—is even a nominal character in the story. So that’s on the nose, by my usual standard of references, but I like to think their inclusion in the story is a useful world-building tactic, which sets up the middle and end of the story.

In a traditional Lovecraft story, the atmosphere is king—or queen, if you prefer—then the setting, the plot is third, and characters are sadly the last consideration. You have to remember Lovecraft was writing, rounding up, about a hundred years ago, and was very much trying to strike a balance between experimental and pulp. His unique style of writing came about because of the clash between his great loves of writing were what we would call writers of a literary bent—such as Lord Dunsany—and the real-world practical reality that his primary publishers were pulp magazines such as Weird Tales, which was clearly selling genre fiction. Lovecraft, like a lot of writers, was seeking to strike a balance between the two forms, to harness all of their strengths and none of their weaknesses, like those movies about werewolves and vampires and Kate Beckinsale. I’m off-topic, but my point is this isn’t a new idea and probably wasn’t even a new idea in Lovecraft’s day to try to blend literary and genre stylings. Where did this lead him? With intestinal cancer and an early grave. But in literature, he’s one of the most important American authors to ever write horror blended with science fiction and supernatural fiction.

Now, why the departure in this review of “14” to talk about another author? Because “14” is a modern-day Lovecraft story—it’s an homage to the man. Let's go down the checklist. Atmosphere: the whole novel is about affecting an atmosphere of intriguing mystery at first that mutates into the threat of, “Oh god, the world is going to end!” Setting: the Kavach building is a fantastic setting, accommodating at first, comfortable even, but with just one more mystery down the hall, around the corner. Plot: in more than one Lovecraft-style story, the protagonist will be investigating something he ought naught, and he should call it quits at several points, but doesn’t, until at the end the terrible revelation strikes—cosmic horrors from beyond space and time. “14” follows that trajectory precisely. The biggest problem with Lovecraft’s stories was undoubtedly his characters. They were often flat, so much so he didn’t even bother to give all of his protagonists names, and more than half of them you probably wouldn’t remember anyway, name or not, if you haven’t read the story more than once. This is where Peter Clines shines, in my opinion, I could listen to his characters talk about anything—for hours. This is the crux of why I love his story so much. I feel he’s incredibly faithful to the form he was setting out to emulate with “14,” and improved on the inherent weaknesses in Lovecraft’s story framework by really developing his characters—and the fact they aren’t subtle or sometimes overt racists like Lovecraft’s characters helps as well.

Parting thoughts:

I bought this novel in 2013 and read it when it wasn’t that famous—I believe it was a daily deal on audible when I picked it up. Part of the reason I did that was at the time, it had glowing customer reviews about the story and Ray Porter’s performance reading that story. I’m a little saddened that with the most recent reviews, that isn’t really true anymore. Part of the reason I believe this is—is because of the novel's success. What I mean by that is, when a book finds success on audible or amazon, or really any platform, then it gets advertised more and more, which means it becomes more exposed to the mainstream. “14,” by its nature, is targeting a niche audience, and the more general audience isn’t known for being kind to weird things. Hell, Lovecraft himself wrote weird fiction as a career, and that went so well for him that he died nearly penniless and subsisting on beans—but he was also writing at the time of the great depression, so there’s that too.

A lot of the complaints about “14” that I’ve read range from a dislike of blending mystery, horror, and science fiction (a very soft science fiction), which I just find silly—and the ending. A lot of people don’t like the end because of the hard shift into monstrous cosmic horror. Often there is a lot of flack about the flying squid whale monsters—or “squales” as one character names them. However, my final point is this book is clearly an homage to Lovecraft, and his most famous character/monster/evil god has to be none other than Cthulhu, and how the hell would you describe Cthulhu to someone who has never heard of him?

I rest my case—and if you want a real problem with, “14’s” plot to complain about then—after reading it—consider how the Kavach building is powered, first earthquake, all of humanity would be doomed. Good thing that doesn’t often happen in LA.

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