The dictionary.com definition of "depraved" is "corrupt, wicked, or perverted".
Like other words -- immoral, disgusting, deviant, for example -- that attempt to describe a certain type of behavior, "depraved" is a totally subjective term, and an often used and abused adjective.
The set-up for Bryan Smith's version of Depraved has more in common with the opening of Goodfellas than a standard horror novel. Jessica, the heroine, is driving down the highway with a live body in her trunk. The body belongs to Hoke, a Nashville music man who got a little rape-happy earlier in the evening. Jessica, who's not the forgiving type, plans to shoot and dump old Hoke. Of course, things don't work out that way.
Mr. Smith is a horror writer who clearly started life as a horror reader and viewer. Like all good work, his is a synthesis of disparate influences. Stuff goes in. Stuff comes out. But between the ins and outs, the stuff gets filtered, re-shaped, deep fried, and re-arranged. Smith adds his own genetic code, tosses in a salad of anger and frustration, and reduces the sauce with a Grand Guignol serving of humor.
In synopsis, much of Depraved is not blindingly original, but few things are in synopsis. One of my favorite film critics, Roger Ebert, once wrote: "...it's not what it's about...it's how it's about..." At the time, he was writing about Freeway, Mathew Bright's trash masterpiece; he was referring to Bright's kinky, warped, bizarre sensibility. Later on, that sensibility created the utterly wonderful Bundy, surely one of the sleaziest, sexiest, and most lurid serial killer pics in existence.
Well, Ebert could have been writing about Depraved because "how" Smith treats his subject matter is what makes the book a winner.
Mr. Smith's "influences" would not be strangers amongst my own. The opening feels like Scorsese's Goodfellas crossed with Laymon's The Woods Are Dark, a novel that, upon original publication, was mutilated by its publisher Warner Books. In Laymon's A Writer's Tale, my favorite book on writing, the author details what the publisher did to virtually rewrite the novel. In The Woods Are Dark, terrible things happen to not-so-terrible people. Behind the terrible things are a race of monsters called 'The Krulls'. In the original paperback, most of the background on 'The Krulls' was excised. It would have been awfully helpful to know more, but the publisher didn't think so. They opted for pace over every other aspect of the storytelling. The result for still a great novel, but it could have been so much better.
I mention The Woods Are Dark and 'The Krulls' because, in a strange way, Depraved feels (in spirit, at least) like what The Woods Are Dark would have been if the publisher hadn't hacked the living fuck out of it. Smith explains away the terrible things that happen to terrible and not-so-terrible people in his novel, and his explanation is solid. He takes the time and space to sketch a fascinating culture of depravity that has echoes of The Wicker Man (the original, not the shit-encrusted remake), but the acrid odor of extreme perversion.
Speaking of extreme perversion. Is the character 'Hoke' a distant relative of Hogg, Samuel R. Delany's vile creation from the long-banned book of the same name? The thought did occur to me right off the bat. Depraved also made me think of Last House on the Left, Two Thousand Maniacs, I Drink Your Blood, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, Trapped, Captured for Sex 2 and Straw Dogs because it's spawned by that genre. But Mr. Smith takes these colorful canvases, stirs them lovingly and, viola!, pulls a snot-dripping rabbit out of his hat (with a killer Epilogue) that is pure B. (for "B-Movie" in this case?) Smith.
Well, maybe. Not that there's anything wrong with that!
The Killing Kind is Bryan Smith's next novel from Leisure.