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Book Review: Urban Gothic by Brian Keene

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A group of teenagers happen upon the wrong house and get tortured and slaughtered in  horrific acts of sex and violent gore. It’s a horror movie premise that has worked well throughout the years, most notably in the classic and timeless Texas Chainsaw Massacre and most recently in the movies like Hostel, parts 1 and 2.

Brian Keene, in Urban Gothic, manages to translate this premise to the written page well, with only a few bobbles along the way.

|The book centers around six teens: Keri, Tyler, Javier, Heather, Stephanie, and Brett, who live in Philadelphia. Freshly graduated from high school, the teenagers travel to a big hip-hop concert as one of their last big events together.

On the way back home, Tyler decides to take a detour into Camden, New Jersey to get weed from a friend. Keene is of course laying on a bit of cliche here, as everyone who has seen a horror movie knows that going on the search for drugs always ends badly. Anyhow, the teens find themselves lost in a bad neighborhood when their car breaks down.

The teens, who are more than out of their element, attempt to call for help but are rebuffed by bad reception. As they try to figure out how to fix the car, a group of black boys approaches and scares the teens off. They take refuge in an old, apparently abandoned house down the street, where the horror begins.

Keene applies excellent pacing to his take on the spatter-punk/torture porn genre. The book was hard to put down and kept me engaged for all 301 pages. Any dull moments in the prose were quickly overshadowed by the almost constant action that dominates most of the book.

Keene gives horror readers plenty of gore; there is head-crushing, decapitation, biting and various other unique death scenes throughout the story. If you want blood, there is more than enough to satisfy you here.

Furthermore, although Keene’s characters can seem generic at times, he manages to make you feel for them as they go through their terrifying ordeal. Keene makes you feel the strenuousness of the journey, the exhaustion and fatigue, and most importantly, the fear.

Urban Gothic is also a relatively quick read due to its shorter page count and quick-paced prose. Overall, the pros outweigh the cons, but there may be some deal breakers in this book for certain readers. As an African-American, I was wary of Keene’s portrayal of blacks in the inner-city when he first introduced the neighborhood residents. He eventually gained my trust with his handling of the material, but I definitely found his portrayal of black people to be highly stereotypical more times than I would have liked.

Also, character development is second-place to the action. Urban Gothic concentrates more on circumstances and character reactions to them rather than allowing the characters to drive the story. Very few of the group of unlucky teens manage to take control of their situation — this also occurs towards the end of the book, rather than in the middle — and even fewer of them are rewarded for it. Ironically, the African-Americans who live in the neighborhood are given the best character arcs and hero treatments, rather than the main protagonists. This allowed me to forgive Keene for the stereotypes I mentioned earlier, but I would have liked to see more from the teens who were the focal point of the story.

Lastly, Keene ends his tale rather abruptly. Readers are not satisfied with the proper decreasing action after the climax of the story. We do not get to know what the survivors are thinking and there are no hints at how they will be affected by this tumultuous event in their futures.

I’m a horror movie and book fanatic, so I was entertained by the death scenes and gore. However, conservative readers might want to shy away from this book for that very reason. The amount of cursing and the bizarre depiction of necrophilia was a bit much, even for me.

If you love any and all things horror, then you will most likely enjoy Urban Gothic. Likewise, if you enjoy a quick read, then you will enjoy it. And If reading Brian Keene leaves you wanting more, be sure to check out his new book, A Gathering of Crows, which will be released soon.

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About Jelani Sims