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Coffin County: a Horror Reader exclusive review

Braunbeckcoffincounty Gary A. Braunbeck’s latest novel -- fourth in his Cedar Hill cycle from Leisure Books -- takes to task a rather challenging subject (no surprise from this author, who has made a career from fiction that asks difficult questions). The epigraph page reveals its themes, recounting passages on love, madness, God and insight from such authors as Heinrich Hein, Christopher Conlon, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Kahlil Gibran, and then concludes with a quartet of names, locations that have found homes in the social consciousness because they have all been sites of mass murder shootings. In Coffin County, Braunbeck’s fictional Cedar Hill will become another of these names.

Now, regular readers of Braunbeck’s fiction know that this author’s work is not content to merely recount horrors. There is a very human quality behind all the horrible happenings, and there is no lack of this human factor in the equation to follow. The supernatural does involve itself, but the real key elements are neither Powers-Man-Was-Not-Meant-To-Know nor Horrors-Without-Meaning, but a more existential issue: Why do Americans have such an easy time killing each other and why do we perform this deed so very often?

Now, regular readers of Horror Reader’s reviews will note that I’m approaching this book from a completely different direction than my typical review. Well, that’s because this reader found this book deeply unsettling. In both aesthetically pleasing (that whole Kafkaesque “one should read only books that bite and sting”) and philosophically challenging ways. While the concept of mass shootings alone is rather horrifying, the story takes several steps deeper into the realm of the disturbing by nearly sidelining the tragedy and suggesting both that the victimized men, women, and children had to die and that the monsters responsible for these deeds are not monsters at all...

What is the book’s story?

Well, we begin with a series of disjointed pieces. Following a single sentence Chapter One, readers will discover scenes from the night that Cedar Hill’s Old Towne East section adopted its current moniker of Coffin County (a historical flashback, which builds to a somewhat surreal and literally explosive, supernatural intersession of chaos), key passages from the fictional travelogue A Visitor’s Guide to Cedar Hill (including unpublished draft pages kept in CH’s Historical Society), a return to and expansion of the first chapter’s sentence, and even a momentary flash from the “present”... The effect is a relentless outpouring of imagery and stories, much of which has already occurred, some of which is about to happen, and all of which have ramifications that are yet to be understood. In the span of 77 pages, readers will discover quite a bit of disparate material touching upon events separated by about two hundred years. However, as Chaos Theory (a mathematical modeling system integral to this book, which non-science savvy readers may recall from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park) tells us, what initially appears to be wildly disconnected information might actually be part of a very complex order. This order comes through when the story then seamlessly leaps to the present day to follow a procedural horror tale wherein the Cedar Hill police department must cope with several seemingly random acts of mass violence.

Gary A. Braunbeck’s writing is as controlled as ever, at turns evocative and beautiful and gruesome. Though this novel takes violence as its raison d’etre, it does not dwell so much in the commission of the acts as it does in the aftermath of those acts. Here, we find an eye that is unwilling to look away, a compassionate voice that delivers descriptions that are discomforting but never gratuitous.

Much as in the beginning, several viewpoints lead us through the story to come. Some of these are Cedar Hill citizenry, some are momentary glimpses into the minds of the supernatural forces at play, but the focal character for the story is Detective Ben Littlejohn, a man who understands loss (his wife was a victim of a robbery turned deadly) and yet does what he must to serve and protect Cedar Hill’s residents. While Ben is our protagonist character, however, the story is not actually told from his point of view.

The choice of voice for this work is interesting. In a technique seen in such works as Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables and Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby, Coffin County offers us a fictional character narrating other fictional characters. In itself, this is nothing spectacularly new. However, this time around we neither find the removed narrator (ala Tom in The Great Gatsby) or the impassioned participant (ala the hard as nails protagonist of many a hardboiled fiction). Instead, “The Reverend” (a familiar face from several Cedar Hill stories) is more of a participating specter, a figure that flits through the characters, offering up deep views of plentiful headspaces. As much as we learn about the well drawn, three dimensional characters in this book, we also (inadvertently) learn about the narrator. While little concrete information is actually blatantly told, much is revealed through inference and a careful attention to both what is said as well as what is not. If this sounds like some cryptic puzzle, rest assured it is nothing of the sort. 

This narrative trickery provides a rationale for some of the quirks in the text. At first, this reader was put off by the vast number of characters who seemed well acquainted with the depths of their own misery (Don’t any of these people repress? Is no one happy in Cedar Hill?), but this reader has since come to terms with the fact that many of these people have been unaware of their own sorrows. At least until they became participants in this book and therefore directly under the eye of this narrator.

While the book works on a purely surface level as a disturbing tale of terror, this reviewer found plenty happening beneath this successful, surface layer. Not only are allusions to other CH stories present and aplenty (though not so thick as to either distract or render the text indecipherable without a Cedar Hill concordance), but readers interested in the craft of writing will find much to savor here.

And yet...

Coffin County bothers this reader. A part of this is due to religious overtones that just don’t work for me, and a part is due to the vast amount of unbroken misery on display, and a part is due to the climax dancing uncomfortably close to one of The Worst Tricks In Storytelling, but ultimately it is the core ideological summation of the book (this reviewer nearly wrote “the core message” of the book, though that would incorrectly make this work seem little better than a platform for propagandizing). This book considers its material and formulates answers I strongly disagree with.

Great fiction does not settle with satisfactory, pat solutions. It gets the mind going, and Coffin County certainly got this reader’s mind a spinning. I don’t expect a book to necessarily agree with my (admittedly cracked) world view, but the ones that present a rational argument in direct opposition... Bother me. Because I cannot debate with a book (short of writing a book of my own), I do not enjoy going on message boards, and I would rather not distract an author with a rambling, incoherent email (I’d rather read that author’s next book). Instead, this reader is forced to carry around the debate in heart and head, and that just bugs me.

Can I recommend this work?  Hesitantly, yes.

I can certainly recommend the author. Gary A. Braunbeck consistently writes some of today’s most powerful popular fiction. This work is his most effective. I cannot say if I quite like it, however. It’s got quite a few teeth, and I respect it. Respect, however, does not connote like. Any new Braunbeck novel is a cause for celebration, but Coffin County (more than anything else he has yet written) has the distinction of completely altering my outlook on what horror fiction can accomplish. I find myself unable to read the genre in quite the way I did before cracking this paperback’s spine.

The fifth (and final?) book for the author’s Cedar Hill cycle will be released by Leisure Books in 2009.

Coffin County by Gary A. Braunbeck
333 pages
Leisure Books
Released June 2008

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