Sunday, 1 January 2012
Book Review : Pay Phone - Brandon Ford
While a fierce winter falls upon the streets of New York City, a vicious killer is on the hunt for new blood. From his third floor apartment window, he watches, waits, using the pay phone across the street as the key to finding his victims. With his voice and his charms, he lures them to his door...
...and one by one they meet their fate. On a gray morning, he spies someone new. Someone different. Someone who reminds him of someone he knows. Someone very, very special. And he'll stop at nothing to be sure that special someone... is next. What ever you do, don't answer the phone. It just might be for you.
The first time I read the late great Richard Laymon, I was around sixteen years old, and I hated his work, I mean HATED it. I had grown up with Horror literature, but the stuff I had been reading was of the, shall we say, excessively descriptive variety. I believed that a great writer should describe everything in vivid detail for the reader, and that Laymon's minimal approach was amateurish at best. See, I was a kid, with hardly any hair on my balls and no real brain in my head. I knew not what I did.
I soon came to realise that its a sign of a great writer, to be able to place the reader inside the emotional core of the work, be it character or scene, with the use of just a few pinpoint focused lines. I realised that I, the audience, was as much a participant in the transference of the novels power as the writer themselves, and that truly gifted writers had the insight, the self control and the respect for their readership, to temper those Tolkienesque/Kingian forty-page setups, and start cutting into the bone from paragraph one.
Brandon Ford, I'm very pleased to say, is one of those writers, and a damned good one at that. PAY PHONE is my first plunge into this guys rather twisted world, and he delivered the goods with surprising style, skill and confidence. This is a writer who understands that less is more, and has that wonderful ability to draw you into his world and is characters in an instant. Ford paints a fully believable reality here, that is at once completely relatable, and in its familiarity, pretty damn horrifying.
Playing out like a pitch-black, perverted vignette of life in the big city, PAY PHONE is the anti-romance. Here, the city is a desolate, dangerous place; lonely and dispassionate towards its lost, damned inhabitants. Here, the wistful dreams of lives possibilities can, and most likely will, lead to pain, terror and death. The city looks down upon her denizens with a cold gaze, as would a predator on her prey, too fascinated by its hopeless struggle for survival to make the final kill. Of course, for anyone who's lived in a city, this will feel all too damn familiar. Ford's reality is one many will recognise, but wish to God they didn't.
PAY PHONE is many things. First and foremost, it a very effective and at times damned distressing Horror story. Yet its much, much more. Its also an ensemble character study...a look into the microscope at a select few of the cities lost souls. It's a perceptive and thoughtful take on loneliness, desire and dreams, and the often devastating results they have on those who live within them. And, surprisingly, it's also a jet-back comedy, at least when it chooses to be, (when Ford decides its time for you to start hurting...hurt you shall).
Ford seems to understand the human condition pretty well. He knows that in tragedy, lies humour, and vice-versa. He understands that horrors basis lies in compassion, and that the vital element in garnering our empathy, (and fear) is through character. With PAY PHONE, he's created a very memorable bunch of misfits. From the gentle, instantly loveable lead, and her ballsy best friend, to a hilarious landlord (who's misery is as contagious as it is funny), theres a lot of good stuff to dig into here. We have career girls with some very unsavoury methods of climbing the corporate ladder, social workers who's motives may not be altogether noble, gap-toothed ladies of the night, and even a vividly realised, (and twisted as hell), relationship between psyche and psycho. Its all great stuff.
And as for the psycho...he's a pretty frightening sumbitch. A smooth talking, self deluded 'Patrick Batemen' type, (if he was too damn fucked up and busy killing to even bother climbing the Wall Street ladder). He's damaged, authentic, and complex; often very funny and, just as frequently, very disturbing. This guy has some pretty dark pastimes, and grooming random lost souls on the phone is the least of them. I won't spoil any of the fun here, but this guys exploits had me hooked, eager for more and wondering why in the hell I was doing so.
PAY PHONE is, on occasion, a very violent work. Ford doesn't pull away from the carnage, yet, wisely, doesn't bombard us constantly, either. While the Horrors are balanced by the building of character, when they hit, they hit hard. More than that, (our monster), Jake's inner demons, when unleashed, can have the effect on the reader of taking a bludgeoning. I enjoyed each and every one of these city folk, and some of them I loved. So by the time the story reached its inevitable conclusion, I was pretty damn distressed. And the novels finale authentically upset me. It the last few chapters, the humour is bled out, and a sense of real terror, danger and despair took hold. The Horror goes full throttle and in a genre where many writers have problems with closure, Ford seems to have none. He also has some pretty big balls to be pulling this sort of thing. Its as strong and effecting a finale, as I've read in many a moon.
I'm glad I found this guy. I'm pretty selective when it comes to my Horror literature, and I often find myself re-reading many of my beloved books, (God knows how many times I've revisited the works of Brian Keene or Laymon, to name just two). It's nice to have a new voice to discover, and one that fits so well with what I see as true Horror lit. Sharp, concise, fearless and fun, PAY PHONE is a blast from start to finish. It's a one/two sitting read, and yet manages to pack more emotion, insight, comedy, character and lovely red stuff into its wiry frame than many of the genre's supposed 'titans' can hope to muster. It's sick, hilarious, intelligent, perverted and disturbing.
Richard Laymon would be proud.
9 Pissed-off Landlords out of 10