Monday, February 9, 2015

The Supernatural Enhancements


            I should, by all accounts, like this book a lot. I love found document stories. I love gothic mysteries. I even love Edward Gorey and pastiches that borrow from Gorey (still trying to track down the volumes of Amphigorey that my dad doesn't own so I can add them to the collection). And I love mad science. There is literally no reason why I shouldn't like this book. The main character even has a love of The X-Files bordering on the obsessive. That's something I can get behind. 

                         But there is something that makes me pause. The book I spent nights breathlessly reading for page after page after page did something I disliked immensely. And then, against better judgement, kept doing it. And I'm going to try as hard as I can to keep this top portion spoiler-free the way I usually do and not give up too much, but I've gotta say this: Get the book for its awesome design and format. Read it because it's an incredibly quirky and intelligent read. Then throw it across the room because Edgar Cantero can't for the life of him end a book in the proper manner. After that, you're welcome to do whatever you wish. Personally, I'm looking forward to Edgar Cantero's next book. 

This one was really good, even despite its issues.

More, as always, below. 

"And the sad truth is, I want to be all those people. I'd sooner die a thousand times forked in that house than wake up to a world without monsters or goddesses. I'd rather play the monster myself."
- A.

                           The Supernatural Enhancements begins mid-journal entry with A. A. is the second cousin twice removed of Ambrose Wells, a wealthy Virginian recluse with an interest in the occult. Wells has decided out of the blue to leave his house and all its contents to A., who journeys to Virginia with his mute punk assistant Niamh to take over the estate. But right away, there are oddities all around. Wells apparently belonged to a strange organization that met every solstice (but wasn't the Masons). There's a ghost in the bathroom. A. begins to have strange dreams every night about various people and places he's never visited, dreams that leave him unnerved and frightened. There are odd passages and secret rooms throughout the house. And someone keeps breaking in and trying to steal things from the house, things that might be important if anyone could actually figure out what they did.

                         And so A. and Niamh, two seemingly time-displaced slackers armed with a video camera and a digital tape recorder, must work their way through a web of strange devices, cryptographic ciphers, transformative house EPs, ghosts, messianic visions, and murder to discover exactly what kind of poison gift Cousin Ambrose has given them. But with mysterious requests, eccentric neighbors, and a Winter Solstice showdown approaching, will A. and Niamh be able to solve things before they're too late?

                        So the thing that drew me to the book, apart from the awesome cover and interior design* was that the entire story is told in the form of documents and fragments of audio and video. What this actually boils down to is that a lot of the book is told in script format or audio transcripts, with passages in first-person narrative, creating an odd viewpoint. It kind of reminded me a little of House of Leaves or the weirder portions of Illuminatus!, where the book would spin off into odd script-treatment sections. It also leads to some interesting sequences like an emergency call later in the book, and one moment where the action takes place through several recovered telegraph messages. Found document format is one I wish was used more, though I understand how it could be daunting, and that Edgar Cantero managed to use it to such great effect with his first ever novel makes it all the more impressive. 

                          Second, I have to applaud him for putting a mute character in a novel such as this. The format really does most of the heavy lifting, but Niamh's idiosyncrasies and constant mugging never really wear on me. She's a funny, interesting character with plenty of agency who serves as a comic foil to the lead, and actually manages to do most of the investigating in the book. We should want more characters like Niamh, a lively young woman who manages to snark even without words and despite her status as a secondary character, has a full range of movement, serving kind of as a mute Great Detective to A's laconic and melancholic audience surrogate. Cantero even describes one of her facial expressions, a thing I knew existed but didn't have a name for, a kind of tight smile with wide eyes. Apparently it's called a "nive".

                      However, as awesome as Niamh as a character is, there is one thing I have to address about her character, and that's near the end. See, Niamh and A. have a kind of interesting relationship. She's really into him, he thinks of her as a younger sister. This is brought up several times throughout the book, with him rebuffing her every time. For other reference, she's seventeen and he's twenty-three. While it didn't completely spoil my enjoyment of the book and its characters, it was really creepy when Niamh finally gets what she wants by getting in bed with A. and kind of belligerently obtaining consent. Partly because due to the nature of the book, I wasn't sure if she was actually still seventeen (which makes it creepy, I understand this is a cultural norm in America that is not necessarily present in countries in Europe), partly because of the relationship between Niamh and A., and partly because belligerently-obtained consent is not something I really feel I can get behind. I will stress over and over again that apart from this and the other main issue with the book, I really liked the book, and one creepy scene does not override the fact that the book is good.

                           The other main issue with the book is the ending. Cantero rushed it. He rushed it and took an excellent premise almost all the way to the finish, only to trip himself and drop the whole thing on the ground. After an uncharacteristically-violent climax where the mansion is raided (and almost all the major characters are killed or injured) by mercenaries shortly after most of the loose ends are tied up and things are actually ending on a pretty good note, there follows a two-page epilogue where it turns out that all the wonderful energy of the book was a ruse. Between these two things, what was a quirky mystery story suddenly takes a left turn into a very dark conspiracy thriller. It also doesn't help that this change takes place right after the other thing I was annoyed with in the book. 

                        And it's a shame, because Cantero really puts his visuals to work in the service of the story. A. is a protagonist with personality to spare. Niamh (despite her little lapse) is a strong female lead like few I've encountered in fiction. The book design plays really well, and the scripted portions never feel jarring. In fact, I'd have liked to see this adapted into a graphic novel. It might take away from the writing, but not terribly. It also help make things a little more consistent. Cantero does have a habit of occasionally forgetting his own details, so characters change from scene to scene and while sometimes it's a running gag (Niamh keeps changing hairstyles throughout the book until at the end she's bald), sometimes it's just annoying. Like he wrote all the parts of the book separately and then assembled them together. 

                    In the end, though, it's worth getting. You might not find it as problematic as I did. You might like the ending more. Either way, it's a quirky, amusing read up until the last fifty pages or so. Edgar Cantero's first effort isn't a great book, but it's a good book, and it's one whose surprises and secrets are a lot of fun to figure out. 

Also, fifty bucks says Betty is the Juggernaut again this year.

- I'm going to a convention. So:

- Either this weekend or next:
-- Near Enemy by Adam Sternbergh

- The Grand Hotel by Scott Kenemore
- Dr. Adder by K.W. Jeter


*I know, I shouldn't judge a book by its cover, but the cover and design elements are what attracted a lot of people to give the book another look. It's a cool-looking book

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