Thursday, March 26, 2009

Bentley Little - The Ignored?

I love this image from the paperback edition of Bentley Little's The Ignored (Signet; June, '97).

The book takes an extraordinary conceit and turns it into an extraordinary novel.

The carousel has nothing to do with the book. It evokes creepiness, as anything carnival-esque often does, and it renders a foreboding atmosphere.

There a lot of Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes in that cover. A feeling that trouble is on the horizon.

How do you graphically represent a subculture of people who are, literally, invisible those around them? How do you portray The Ignored?

In this case, Signet decided not to.

Although the carousel and coloring is impressive, it's also generic. Because it's so unspecific, it gives the browser no idea of what's inside the book in terms of story.

Does such a tactic miss the opportunity to connect with readers who are unfamiliar with Little's work?

You tell me.

The back cover circles the concept by personalizing one man's dilemma -- nobody notices him. It does not propose the premise in a more general sense such as:

"What if nobody noticed you anymore? Would that make you angry? Or would that make happy? Think of the possibilities. If you really were ignored, you could get away with murder."

That's the premise in a nutshell, but the blurb doesn't go there.

Should it?

I'm curious because The Ignored has been ignored by many horror fans. Along with The Mailman (my favorite Little book) and The Store, it's in my top trio of the author's amazing works. But when I mention it to colleagues or on-line buddies, few have read it.

I sense that Little himself gets ignored by the horror community. Am I right or wrong? You guys are part of the horror community, so fess up. Is Bentley Little on your radar?

Little isn't active on on-line forums and blogs like authors such as Brian Keene, Jack Ketchum, Bryan Smith, Edward Lee (to some extent) and Michael Laimo.

Leisure's stable of writers make their presence felt on-line. Writers like Little and John Saul do not.

Saul had an active forum at one time, but he scaled it right back. There are some websites devoted to Little, too, but they're infrequently updated. There is no dedicated web presence.

I consider myself a very dedicated fan, and I actively follow new and old authors. My sense is that Little is doing himself no favors by maintaining an MIA status on-line. Am I off the mark?

Today, I think an on-line presence for an author is essential. A presence in one place propagates to others.

Stephen King has an official site. If there's anybody who could justify not having an official web presence, it's King, but he has one, anyway, because it keeps the King brand in the stratosphere.

MacDonald's do the same thing. Do they NEED to advertise that they exist? Not necessarily, but they keep on advertising because they have competition. They advertise to keep the brand (and brand loyalty) at a healthy fever pitch.

I'd like to see a stronger Bentley Little web presence because I think his work is amazing.

Admittedly, I don't always like the way he rushes to resolve his stupendous premises, but I'm totally drawn to his perverse imagination, and his black as pitch humor.

He's up there with the finest writers of the fantastique in the world.

Little is with Signet, not a publisher associated in the public mind with horror. Saul is with Ballantine, a publisher of mass market fiction; they publish horror, but they're not known for it. And much of their horror has been shifted to the "Fiction" list.

Leisure Books, on the other hand, is strongly identified with horror (at least for fans), even though they have robust Romance, Western and Thriller imprints; their parent is Dorchester.

Bentley Little's work gets very decent distribution; I can always find his titles at Borders or Barnes and Noble. Sometimes he's in "Horror", often he's in "Fiction". Since "Fiction" is a larger category and more diverse, that may be a better thing for him.

Here's the crucial question: Is the web pointing readers to writers they don't know, or is the presence of an author's book (in sufficient quantities) on physical bookshelves enough to drive sales?

I say Yes to the first question, and No to the second.

There is an interesting assumption when one sees many copies of a single author's book. To me, at least, it indicates popularity. Demand. But it's not enough these days because on-line retailing is booming while in-store sales are receding like George Costanza's hairline.

Let's return to Stephen King once more. He's everywhere. His books are so plentiful they cause the shelves to sag. Few authors have the shelf sagging weight of Stevie. His competitors can only attempt to shift attention from the mighty K-L category of horror authors which now includes King and Keene, Koontz, Ketchum, Laymon, and Little. Despite his power to splinter the timber of bookshelves, King remains a potent web presence.

The rumpus on Little is he's a shut-in, a reclusive fellow who prefers not to spend his precious time on planet Earth on-line. He wants to focus entirely on writing. Nothing wrong with that.

But if the wordsmith who's been called a "master chef of the macabre" and "the horror poet laureate" by Mr. King wants to elevate his "brand" in the horror and general book buying community, a web home is essential. How the web home is managed is up to the author and/or publisher, but it's a necessary evil than can no longer be... ignored.

Am I off base?

10 comments:

  1. You are rarely off base, Phantom; but you certainly sound a tad angry...

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  2. I loved The University, Death Instinct and some of the short stories in The Collection. But his novels often seem to run out of steam before the climax (or anti-climax, as is often the case), and I absolutely hate that, it's so frustrating. Still, when he is in top form, his writing is awesome.

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  3. Well, I've read a lot of Mr. Little's books, and I certainly count THE STORE, THE ASSOCIATION and THE MAILMAN as some of my favorites. Unfortunately for THE IGNORED, I didn't appreciate it as much because it reminded me of Christopher Priest's THE GLAMOUR, a previous novel covering a similar situation.

    Bentley Little is surelly one of the most accomplished horror writers today, but in my very humble opinion his work has a serious flaw that - I think - explains why he isn't as well read as Mr. King, Lee, Straub or Laymon.

    And that is because his books don't seem to stay true to their own potential. What do I mean by that? Consider THE ASSOCIATION: a homeowners association so evil, burocratic, mallefic, that it encroaches its influence on all fields of the owners's lives; or the MAILMAN, someone who gains lots of information from reading the mail he should be delivering and playing trickster with it; or THE POLICY, an assurance policy that, just as it happened with the ASSOCIATION stipulates some absurd and sinister clauses; or THE RESORT, or THE IGNORED: the formula is always the same - we meet a character that finds himself in the sinister red tape of society.

    The problem is that the premise is wonderful, the corners the characters seem to be painting themselves at are deviously clever, and then... on the third act, the Supernatural intrudes. I believe that's whats killing Mr. Little recognition as a trully great writer.

    Because his stories don't need the supernatural. The legal, sociological, political, economic causes are enough to take his character's lives to the heights of cosmic irony. The intrusion of supernatural causes - at least to me - detract from everything that came before. We are expecting a really clever outing for the character's predicaent, and instead we always get a joust between good and evil.

    The other authors treat their books and readers with more fairness: the supernatural is necessary for the story (in the cases of King, Straub or Lee) or the evil that every man has inside is sufficient to explain the suffering (like in Laymon's books). Not so in Little's work: the supernatural is not necessary, and we get the feeling that some books that could be true masterpieces of satire or social commentary (beside edge of the seat thrillers and intelectual riddles) are shot down by the need Little feels to press some generic tropes to make them bona fide horror books.

    There, my two cents of wisdom.

    But... what I think is the mail fail

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  4. mandingo -- I sound angry? Hmmm. Certainly not angry.

    ***

    Jaakko -- I agree with you. I guess that was what I was saying when I mentioned that he rushes his climaxes. Such great premises.

    ***

    A. Sherman Barros -- I think you've hit the nail on the proverbial. The supernatural elements seem kinda superfluous. "Dispatch", the one about writing, was so amazing until the supernatural aspect was introed. Same with "The Association", as you mentioned.

    The supernatural is quite intrusive in most of his books. For me, in "The Mailman" it felt less redundant because the mailman himself was a demonic figure.

    Movies often have the same problem. Great premise. Difficult to resolve.

    To me, a great premise must be great in all three acts. It is easy to come up with something original in the set-up. It is difficult to resolve it in a satisfying way.

    You make really good points about this supernatural/resolution problem being part of the reason why Little hasn't quite "broken through".

    Personally, I'm not big on the supernatural because I don't believe it. I like evil that springs from the mind of men and women. That's why I'm very keen on Ketchum and Laymon, who don't go the supernatural route too often. When Ketchum did go that route in "She Wakes", I didn't like the book.

    Lovecraft gets away with it because he's dealing wioth "cosmic forces" that are kind of unique to him.

    Thanks for such illuminating feedback, fellas.

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  5. I thought Dispatch was pretty awesome even after the first supernatural element was introduced, but then Little just had bring in this totally retarded evil organization that didn't really make any sense. Personally I think that supernatural horror is an essential part of his novels, and usually permeates them pretty thoroughly. My biggest problem is that the nightmarish quality of that horror seems dissipate towards the end of the novels, because at that point the characters often seem to be able to control their fear too much.

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  6. Yeah, Jaakko, I agree. The idea of an evil organizations just feels hackneyed to me. And too convenient. It's too easy. It's also illogical. What do these organizations really gain? It's retarded.

    It's a problem you get when dealing with absolutes. There's nowhere else to go. If you're really THAT evil, you wouldn't bother with silly scams.

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  7. The name tickles my brain but it's hard to tell if I have actually read him or if I just recognize his name from the bookshelves.

    I am fairly reluctant to try new horror that hasn't been recommended. After getting spoiled on Laymon and Simmons, I realize the third act is everything and if I don't have some sort of assumption of quality, it can be hard to read 2/3's of a good book just to watch it fall apart in the end. Incidentally, I am far willing to try new horror movies because good or bad, it is over in two hours.

    Having said that, self promotion by authors interest me little. I appreciate the artists who give such access to their fans, but if they are new to me, then they are just another online infomercial. I find that blogs where I respect the author carries more weight than anything the author could say himself. If you say Little is good, then I'm checking him out.

    Totally off topic, but that skull mailbox really creeps me out. That's a great image.

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  8. I do highly recommend Bentley Little, despite some reservations.

    I suggest you go with "The Mailman" or "The Store" first. "The Association" and "Dispatch" are also excellent.

    Laymon and Simmons both do great resolutions.

    A good point you make about movies being easier to take chances on because of the two hour commitment.

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  9. I enjoy reading both Little & Saul. . .

    Great post Phantom!

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  10. thebonebreaker -- thank you. Another Saul fan, eh? I don't like everything of his, but I find him unique.

    There is a familiar structure to his stories that he has rarely detoured from -- Prologue/Present Day Story/Epilog, but I find his writing strong and his ability to raise a chill noteworthy.

    I like "Cry for the Strangers" a hell of a lot, and "Punish the Sinners" and "Suffer the Children" are XLNT , too.

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