The Association by Bentley Little

I don’t usually bother with book jacket information, not the least because I do all of my reading in audio. Flicking through the info for The Association while I waited for another audiobook to download however, I don’t think I’ve ever read a book summation quite as strange or compelling, or one which immediately grabbed my attention so completely.

When horror writer Barry Welsh and his accountant wife Maureen find a new country house in the gated community of Bonita Vista, it seems like a dream come true. A quiet, friendly community in stunning surroundings, a far cry from the hustle and bustle of California, a place where Barry can hopefully write in piece. During their first day however whilst selling off unwanted furniture from the house, Barry and Maureen receive a visit from a prissy little man who represents the Bonita Vista homeowners association who informs them that the association do not permit yard sales. Outlined in the associations extensive covenants, conditions and restrictions (CC&R’s), it soon becomes clear there are many other things the association does not permit, including unapproved interior decoration, unmarried couples and any kind of democracy. The association also reserves the right to constantly watch all Bonita Vista residents for infractions against the rules, and administer punishments ranging from warnings, to fines, to mutilation.

One minor problem in The Association, is that at first I wasn’t exactly sure how to take the book. At the start, it seems The Association appears to be more a novel of modern fear such as Todd Strasser’s classic “The Wave”.

I have never had direct experience of a gated community (I don’t know if we have them in the UK), but my one experience of the bigotry of a residents association was certainly fairly negative. So to me, much of the novel have a quite believable cast, even how Maureen is at first at least willing to see things from The Association’s perspective, while the liberal but naturally misanthropic Harry is more sceptical. This means that when Little gets to the disturbing experiences that place the book squarely in the horror category, matters felt slightly jarring.

This is partly due to the basic tenor of Little’s writing style, since his prose tends to be plain, almost bald with not much by way of poetry, thus distinguishing Harry’s attitudes from Little’s authorial intentions was not always easy, especially considering that as a horror writer Harry himself is more than ready to note odd touches of atmosphere and possible horror tropes.

Ironically one of Little’s major strengths contributed to this problem as well, since Little undoubtedly has a gift both for characterisation, and for giving you a truly grounded sense of reality in his books. In The Influence, where matters were undoubtedly supernatural this made for a wonderful almost comic mix of the mundane and Macabre, at the start of The Association however, it sometimes made me slightly confused, since there is an oddly fine line between having rules that disallow pets, and then having Harry discover a decayed, dead cat in his mailbox on his first day in Bonita Vista.

Little’s knack for writing highly believable characters continues however, indeed both Harry and Maureen are far more likable protagonists than was Ross in The Influence. Though of course I suppose I would naturally be predisposed to identify with a liberal minded, slightly misanthropic writer with a knee jerk reaction against authority who adores his wife.

Despite feeling slightly unsure of its overall direction however, there is no denying the book was compelling. Jarring though some of the straight off shocks are, the overall pace was still extremely tense with Little wrong footing the reader at each turn. In particular, I admired how he begins with Harry meeting those opposed to The Association’s control, but with neither Harry nor the reader sure of how far the association will go in its efforts to control the lives of residents, and of course the almost dystopian feeling of mistrust and claustrophobia when you realize that even among those who doubt The Association there might be a mole, or simply those unwilling to stick their necks out too far.

I also admire the way Little plays with his characters since this is not only a book where nobody is safe (always a bonus in a horror story), but also one where you can’t exactly predict where any given character will end up or where their loyalties truly lie.

There is something wonderfully petty in many of The Association’s control methods, which include bankrupting residents they don’t like, enforcing home improvements, and even round the clock surveillance and broadcasting the actions of residents under suspicion, indeed it’s interesting that a book written in 2003 could prove both so prescient and so disgustingly skin crawling when it comes to the modern fear of invasion of privacy.

The action does slow down slightly in the books middle, and some have criticised the book for being a little too long, though myself I was always interested to see what crazy rules The Association might come up with next, how the dreaded cc and r’s would be changed to spike Harry and Maureen, and what new horror we’d be privy to, indeed I admire the way that Little begins with rules that are seemingly logical, if bureaucratically enforced, such as Harry not permitted to write in his house since there is a rule about no home businesses carried out in Bonita Vista, then slowly progresses to rules that are more and more loopy such as rules concerning what decorations are permitted and even what female hygiene products residents are allowed. I do wish that Little had structured the book a little differently, so that each rule is introduced before we see how Harry and Maureen fall foul of it rather than after, though the wonderfully cold legalese the rules are written in; particularly the more insane ones, makes for a fantastically flesh creeping sense of the bizarre. As far as the rules are concerned, it’s also to Little’s credit that he doesn’t introduce more obviously unpleasant but unfortunately more common place rules, such as homophobic or racist ones, until later in the book when Barry has some visiting friends who are likely to fall short of such rules (which makes you all the more concerned about them).

The perspective mostly stays with Barry and Maureen throughout the entire book, other than the odd anecdote about other Bonita Vista residents which was definitely an improvement over The Influence. Though In one case, I was rather sorry one man’s tale of how the Association vanished his unmarried girlfriend petered out with no resolution, indeed I wonder if this was a plotline which Little intended to pursue but which got edited out in the final version.

Speaking of relationships, there were a few moments where Little’s horror became a trifle adolescent regarding his depiction of sex and the reactions of his characters. The relationship between Harry and Maureen is a loving and fulfilling one, which Little, even with his rather cold style depicts tastefully, if not actually beautifully, however, one odd occasion features an attempted BDSM seduction which is so over the top it sounds as if it were written by a fourteen year old. At another point, Harry comes across a mutilated victim of The Association’s wrath and, though he’s shocked, does absolutely nothing to help, something which is doubly ironic given his previous appalled reaction to a similar mutilation earlier in the book.

There are also a couple of plotlines with rather odd solutions, for example a conflict between Association and the residents of Korban which employs a rather strange, seemingly inhuman power on the part of Association members, but  one which is never explained, or at least, never given a reason for its strangeness. Indeed, towards the end though it becomes completely clear that there is a supernatural agency behind The Association, to what extent people are acting voluntarily and to what extent being influenced is highly debatable.

I also did feel that Little was losing steam slightly in the book’s final quarter, particularly since some plots weren’t exactly resolved, or at least came to a slight hiatus, though it was also around this point in the book when some of Barry’s opposition to The Association became overt, leading to some quite comic moments of rule flaunting that probably represent wish fulfilment for a lot of readers; I for one have certainly run into bureaucrats in my time who I have wanted to KO with a clipboard.

Matters get extremely tense around the last hour, and while the book’s final climax is a little out of left field, since by that point the Association had descended into truly unbelievable levels of insanity, I was more than happy to roll with it.

I did find it a little strange the seemingly sedentary Harry would decide to go all Rambo to take down The Association, especially since some pretty hideous scare tactics had managed to convince Barry’s friends that tangling with The Association was a bad idea. Then again, As with much of the book, Little represents the power the Association had, a power founded as much on the complex laws of real estate transfer and bankruptcy as on physical intimidation, violation of privacy and murder as frighteningly convincing, and while we’d all like to think we’d be the ones to stand up to intimidation tactics, actually standing in the way of threats of torture, especially against not only yourself but your loved ones might be quite another matter, a decision which makes Barry’s bull-headed bravery admirable, if not necessarily wise.

While the denouement did seem slightly at odds with the rest of the book, I appreciated the irony in the method of The Association’s downfall. My only minor issue with the book’s ending was the way that Little as narrator states that it was strict adherence to the association’s rules which them to quite literally go to hell, and thus even some of the Associations victims (those enslaved directly), were responsible for their own predicament. This particularly didn’t jell with the fate of several female victims of The Association, who were once again dismissed with a slightly juvenile single paragraph of unpleasantness. Not that nastiness, even sexual nastiness is something I mind in a horror novel, just that once again, Little’s confusion as to how much the residents of Bonita Vista were being influenced by the paranormal occurrences, and how much just acting as classic rule followers was rather at odds with the victimisation here, especially given the vanishment of the innocent unmarried girlfriend earlier in the book (who sadly does not turn up again even as a corpse).

Then again, the way that so many of Bonita Vista’s residents loyalties crystallised here, and the final stand of one particular resident were definite moments of awesome.

While I appreciated the irony of the final ending for the protagonists, at the same time the sheer rejection of everything the Association stood for went rather too far, beyond the point of humour slap bang into nose cutting, face spitting levels of hubris, especially ones which didn’t jell with Little’s sense of realism, albeit I was still glad the ending was a happy one since this is one evil which needed defeating.

Trawling the net for views on The Association, I found two broadly opposed groups. Those who found the levels of disbelief too much to take, and those who just loved the sheer level of crazy. If you begin The Association expecting any kind of semi realistic take on a modern day dystopia you’re going to be disappointed. If however you begin The Association directly expecting evil supernatural influences disguised as a civic authority, you’re probably going to enjoy it.

For myself, despite some slight confusion, a minor slackening of pace and a couple of adolescent digressions, The Association was a lot of fun. With a far more likeable protagonist and tighter structure than the last Bentley Little book I read, as well as some truly loathsome villains, I’ll definitely be returning to Little in the future when I’m next feeling horrific.

8/10 You can judge a book by its cover

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