The Influence by Bentley Little

8/10 Unemployment is on the rise due to a lack of horrible monsters

Despite having read a great deal of authors like James Herbert, Graham Masterton and of course Stephen King in the past, for some reason I find myself picking up pure horror novels far less often than other types of speculative fiction. This is actually rather a shame, since once I get into a good horror I do enjoy them (if enjoy is the right word). Similarly, it is often a bit too easy to default to reading comfortable, familiar and known authors, especially those who write long running series. So, on a whim I decided to kill two  birds with one particularly freaky stone and give Bentley Little a try.
The story begins with Ross Lowry, an engineer down on his luck. Having failed to find a new job for a year, Ross is in danger of losing his apartment when help unexpectedly arrives from his cousin Lita who offers him a place to stay with her and her husband on their organic ranch in the small town of Magdalena. Though Ross is very much a city boy and couldn’t have dreamed of living on a farm in a desert town, slowly his culture shock fades and he begins to settle in and get to know the locals. Unexpectedly however, after a New Year’s Eve party Ross finds his luck starting to change. He begins to receive lucrative job offers and finds a beautiful girlfriend. Neither is Ross the only resident of Magdalena to find a change in his fortunes, as the townspeople enjoy a rash of miraculous occurrences from winning the lottery to quite literally striking gold. Not all of the changes in fortune however are good ones, and it soon becomes apparent that suddenly becoming lucky or unlucky is only the tip of the iceberg. A veterinarian is called to a series of odd animal transformations, people begin to hear strange voices or dream odd dreams, and there is definitely something nasty lurking in one farmer’s smoke house.
I don’t know what it is about small American towns that makes them so prone to supernatural phenomena (I must watch out next time I visit my lady’s family in Pennsylvania), but the small town in The Influence is probably one of the best written examples of the setting I’ve seen for some time. On average, horror writers tend to represent small towns as either a wholesome haven of sweetly conservative folksiness, or disturbingly provincial clans of technophobic troglodytes. Little however goes to neither extreme with Magdalena. It is very much a town full of various different characters, from the wonderfully named friendly handy man Jackass McDaniels, to the deeply racist and unpleasant Cameron Halt.
Yet for ALL it is populated by such varying people, Little still is able to give Magdalena a distinct sense and atmosphere of its own, indeed the way he shows Ross having to get used to the culture, rhythm and style of a different environment despite the fact that Lita and her husband are both perfectly welcoming certainly struck a familiar chord with me, since I had very much the same experience when I first stayed with my sister in law’s family. Character indeed is one of Little’s strongest aspects, whether good bad or distinctly ugly he still manages to give them enough nuance, enough little quirks of behaviour and personality to make them extremely believable people. The ability to note and pick up on small details and weave them into a generalized atmosphere seems one of Little’s strongest attributes as a writer, something which contributes both to his observational realism and to the escalating twilight zone weirdness of the latter part of the book, (you will never think about small children selling mushrooms or angel shaped cookies quite the same way again).
For all Little’s character depictions are truly three dimensional however, I did have a problem with the book’s central protagonist. While Little obviously intended Ross to be the usual Average Joe, from the second we meet him complaining bitterly about his family and his lack of money, I found him to be rather flat and dislikeable. While undoubtedly this was intentional on Little’s part since at one stage he actually describes Ross as the typical cog in the corporate wheel, at the same time it didn’t make him somebody whose well being or success I overly cared about, a distinct problem in a book whose central theme revolves around unexpected changes in luck.
Another minor issue I had with the book was Little’s focus. Little follows a unique almost tree diagram structure with his book’s characters, in that first we begin with Ross, then as Ross encounters more people around Magdalena we get their perspectives, and as they meet more people we get further new perspectives and so on. This means part way through the novel we start flitting around the town getting what are almost short stories or interludes of various odd goings on. While on an individual level these work extremely well, collectively they frequently fall short. Part of this relates to the rather uneven amounts of time Little spends with the various characters and their stories, meaning that at one stage we only get one character’s perspective long enough for them to become monster fodder, while another major character who we have grown to like endures several scenes of building unpleasantness which never have a payoff. Similarly, Little’s follow up when for example relatives of the monster’s victim discover their death is sometimes extremely good and wonderfully pointed, sometimes completely glossed over and forgotten.
Then again, one thing I very much enjoyed with Little’s changes in viewpoint was the way you sometimes merely hear about odd goings on rather than experience them, indeed how he reveals what actually happened at the New Year’s Eve party through getting several accounts from different characters is a wonderful way to tickle the reader’s curiosity and maintain the mystery.
The only problem with the pace of revelations is that just as the sinister goings on are ramping up to the point that the whole community is involved and the mystery is about to become an open secret, Ross, along with several other characters literally pack up and leave and only return later for the final confrontation taking the authorial perspective with them. While I cannot fault Ross’s logic or sense of self preservation, at the same time, this did rather cut things off in mid flow, not to mention being a trifle frustrating given that I was far more eager to see what was happening in Magdalena than follow Ross’s more mundane adventures elsewhere.
Then again, for all that on a structural level the character perspectives perhaps don’t piece together as well as they might I cannot criticise Little’s actual execution. The way Little’s slow ironic style blends details of the strange and surreal with perfectly normal, everyday happenings has a wonderful tinge of the macabre, for example when Ross’s girlfriend is forced to call in sick to her telemarketing job due to a disturbing incident, or when Lita and Dave have to get a plumber to drain the various sorts of nightmarish growths that have been blocking up their pipes, after which they all quite cheerfully go back to the bathroom as normal.
I also admire the way that Little was able to blend different forms of horror together rather than be reliant on just one note. From the existential oddity of changes in fortune, to some good old-fashioned monster munchings, to weird landscapes, unexpected dreams or voices, disturbingly surreal things happening with household objects and even a little sexual or body horror, whatever your poison you’ll certainly find something scary here. Though Little is no poet and his style is often a little stark, at the same time the sheer variety of weirdness and the reactions of his characters make the fearful sections of the book extremely absorbing.
The most major problem I had with the book however, was the way that Little deals with Ross’s relationship with his girlfriend. Mixing sexual themes with horror is course something that goes right back to Dracula if not earlier, and at the beginning of the book Ross has a number of disturbing nightmares which mix erotic and horrific in a way that would be familiar to any reader of authors like Clive Barker, and which are all the more terrifying being as they are described in such a cold, ironic way.
Unfortunately though, Ross’s relationship with his girlfriend is described in exactly the same clinical, offhand style, including the fact that they have very little by way of actual connection beyond a very distant liking and the propensity to both engage in extreme sex acts with each other, scenes which certainly cross the boundary into the lurid.
While Little does hint that some of this relationship is due to the titular influence, his hints aren’t nearly enough to really make this relationship feel especially wrong, particularly given that at least on Ross’s part, having a well described lay with someone he only has a distant emotional connection with seems to be pretty much what he expects and desires. The fairly graphic sexual gymnastics are described so distantly that the only real emotion we know Ross (and to a lesser extent his girlfriend), apparently feels at the time is a desire to get their respective rocks off, as opposed to say some sort of emotional connection with the other person. Indeed, this was just another reason I found Ross less than congenial company for much of the book.
Perhaps had Little given us somewhere an idea of what a “healthy” relationship was like, or the notion that Ross had other things on his mind in relationship terms things might have been different, but as it stands what is billed as the “romance” of the book basically reads like a fairly cold manual on moderately extreme experimentation and was therefore actually rather depressing.
The ending did have some wonderful moments but was on the whole a bit of a let-down. While it is great to get back to Magdalena and see just how far things have gone to hell, the final confrontation is over so quickly that I was sure there would be a sting in the tail, only to be shocked when it turned out that getting rid of the evil influence really was as easy as it seemed. It also somewhat stretched my logic given that we’d previously been told a couple of Magdalena’s residents attempted to confront the force at work and failed, that the method of attack is such a mundane one and one I really would’ve expected someone to have tried earlier.
From a character perspective, the ending also felt mildly flat, particularly since Ross’s main contribution seemed to be knowing some people who knew people who might be able to help, and far from growing or changing from the experience, the rather dull, faintly selfish engineer we meet at the beginning of the book is very much the same at the end.
All that being said, there was a great deal to like in The Influence. Characters who are for the most part realistic, even if not always likable, an interesting basic premise about changes in fortune, all sorts of horror from monsters, to sexual body horror, to strange visions, voices and even a little on religious hysteria. While the pacing and ending felt a bit off and I really did not care much for the main character or his relationship, at the same time, if we rate a horror novel on just how often you find yourself sitting on the edge of your seat waiting to see just how strange things are going to go and which characters are up for the chop next, The Influence succeeds admirably well, and for this reason I’ll definitely be revisiting Little in the future next time I want to read something horrible!

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