Saying the words “giant snake book” probably conjures up images of some midnight movie cheesefest. Brian Keene could have easily written such a book when he sat down to pen Scratch, his latest stab at self-publishing (originally released as a limited edition hardcover from Cemetery Dance). Instead, he’s taken a somewhat absurd premise and constructed a story with real heart, a novella-length tale populated with carefully crafted characters that force you to root for them instead of the giant serpent we might otherwise cheer on.
In addition to the characters, Scratch succeeds because Keene is writing about more than the fear of a huge snake. He’s writing about fear that we can all relate to, something he sums up in one of the most chilling lines he’s ever written: “There are things in this world that you can’t protect your family from.”
Damn, Keene. Thanks for reminding us.
That’s a fear anybody who has surrounded themselves with people they love has felt from time to time. It’s a fear that creeps in every time there’s a news story about a random shooting in a movie theater, or a tornado that rips through a community, or head-on collision caused by someone who’s concentrating more on composing a text message than watching the road.
It’s a fear that Evan Fisher has worked hard to insulate himself from. Evan draws comics for a living, and he’s done well enough to buy a few acres in rural Pennsylvania for himself, his wife and their son. Both Fishers work from home, and their busy schedules mean TV and Internet time is kept to a minimum. Fisher even drywalled over the windows of his studio as a means of keeping the distractions at bay. He’s a man who likes to keep things uncomplicated, and for a while he manages to do so. But one day a hard rain falls, and something gets stirred up that can’t be ignored.
You get the sense that Evan has always felt a little insecure in his ability to care for his family. His father was a foundry worker, and it takes Evan a long time to convince him that drawing “funnybooks” is as viable a career as factory work. Despite finally hearing his father say that he’s proud of Evan’s work, there’s still a kind of defensiveness there, and some similar feelings are stirred up once the giant, scaly nightmare the locals call “Old Scratch” arrives on the scene.
But don’t worry, it’s not all thoughtful introspection and quiet meditation. There is, after all, a giant snake on the loose near Evan’s house. The scenes of Evan and his neighbor, Jeff, tracking the beast through their neighbor’s home are full of tension and outright horror. Keene keeps the gore to a minimum, which only heightens the impact when Evan and Jeff do stumble upon something gruesome.
Scratch is a quick read, but it’s one that is going to stay with readers for a while. Keene’s chops are only getting better as he pours out more words, and he’s got a way of tapping into our inner fears that elevates his work beyond its humble genre origins. Scratch is B-movie subject matter delivered by A-list talent, and is well worth your time.
Order Scratch by Brian Keene here.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.