by Brian McGreevy
Farrar, Straus and Giroux; 336 p.
I read the galley for screenwriter Brian McGreevy’s novel, Hemlock Grove, at the beach sometime ago; admittedly a strange locale for what is essentially a contemporary homage to traditional gothic horror. The back cover blurb by torture porn sommelier Eli Roth had me initially soured, envisioning something of a gorier Twilight encapsulated within; however, I found the novel to be clever and written with reverence toward its generic forbearers. McGreevy’s grasp of the canon he may someday join is astounding, leaving other writers with vampiric inclinations behind in the dust.
For example: Shelley, a brilliant and misshapen sister to the novel’s handsome antihero/antagonist Roman Godfrey, is very clearly a creation of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Shelley is a girl of few words, but her letters are purposefully written with the cadence and wit of the letters in Frankenstein.
But McGreevy is not afraid to mix mediums—Shelley’s soil-shoes, a nod to Dracula—and it is this kind of risk taking that keeps the novel from becoming cloying or twee. If he has written a supernatural mystery, it is one woven finely and of better stuff than most. He handles gore without getting his hands dirty, perhaps doing Roth a favor by letting him blurb such a restrained piece of horror that never becomes horror show.
Hemlock Grove is also a coming of age tale, mainly about young Peter Rumancek, the lupine loner new to a broken down town just outside Pittsburgh with a newly developed dead body problem. If Roman Godfrey is a creature of wealth and power culled from the mind of Bret Easton Ellis, than Peter Rumancek is but a hairier Holden Caulfield, a gypsy boy with a ponytail the world loves to pull. He doesn’t choose to be the hero the same way he doesn’t choose to love Roman’s odd cousin Letha, but both happen anyway. And while the situation may be miraculous—biotechnological feats, mad, rabid monsters—the emotions are the same. Peter’s growing pains throughout the novel are familiar, comforting especially because they are one of the few things Hemlock Grove includes that have been universally experienced, giving the readers a point toward which we can direct our empathy.
Even though it is a profoundly American work, McGreevy’s sad, gothic town skews more Transylvania than it does O’Connor Deep South, another testament to the author’s control over his craft. A screenwriter ought to succeed primarily in dialogue, but the novel excels in most, if not all aspects. I don’t normally gush over books, especially ones that have been written recently, finding most contemporary fiction to be affected and clumsy. To write a thrilling, archetypal work that never functions as mimetic is a triumph, and with news that Roth may be adapting the novel especially for Netflix, one that will be continually rewarding for McGreevy and his fans.
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Yeaaah. No. I really, really wanted to like the book – McSweeney’s/DFW-esque overwriting and paranormal/horror material? Sounds great. But the writing is, for the most part, clumsily show-offy at best, and downright a mess at worst, and the plot seems to suffer from a similar problem: I realize an element of mystery is desirable, but really, why even have the annoying Johann Pryce interludes? The “Order of the Dragon” bit? It comes across like a pitch for a TV show – it presents hints and scraps of a fully realized world, one that you could probably get well into over a few seasons. But as a novel? Yeesh. I mean, the “rape scene” (which manages to be both nihilistic and utterly sanitized by Roman’s hypno-powers) reads as bad trash – Updike gone Twilight. Her vulva shining like the heat off a highway. Oh, ok. Bah. I suppose your mileage may vary, but I guess I was expecting something a bit more mature or challenging when I picked it up.