“Urban Gothic” and The Minotaur

David | Sep 24, 2009

Brian Keene’s recently released Urban Gothic brought to mind the myth of the Minotaur. A group of teens is thrown into a labyrinthine house whose twists and turns extend far below the ground in a neglected neighborhood. Their first encounter is with a hulking, deformed creature whose strength seems insurmountable.

Keene tells this story from multiple points of view, and I think that worked really well for the fast-paced action. I noticed, too, that Keene give the reader an immediate indication of POV change by having the POV character identified, in most cases, in the first sentence of any section change. I noticed it because I was looking for it, but I don’t think it was in any way repetitive or distracting.

In many ways, this book felt like a typical teen-scream horror movie. Teenagers, lost, creepy house, cannibals running loose. Lots of blood, death, people making bad choices that lead to their death. But I don’t believe these elements are just by chance.

Teenagers are, by their very nature, in a transitory state - in the midst of a journey from childhood to adulthood. It’s important to me because it places the characters in a state where the reader expects them to make mistakes and learn lessons. The creepy house and the labyrinth that stretches out beneath it are also important, as it builds the confusion, gives a physical manifestation to what teenagers experience.

What really stood out most to me, however, is the constant reinforcement of the first two words of the novel: Shit Happens.

In Douglas Winter’s book, Stephen King: The Art of Darkness, Winter talks about King’s naturalistic approach to plot. I like how Keene puts it better - shit happens. Keene forsakes the idea of having to provide a logical explanation for the events in his novel. And really, what explanation does the reader need? It’s a standard “Cannibal Clan” trope, and it works just fine. Shit happens - these kids take a wrong turn, wind up in the wrong neighborhood, encounter the wrong people, and all but one wind up as dinner. As one character thinks to herself in the very beginning: Shit happens. And when it does, things get fucked up. This isn’t to say the story is without plot, but the plot revolves around action and escape, not the clan itself.

I mentioned earlier that the book made me think of the Minotaur. There were a lot of mythological symbols that I picked up on in just the first few pages. Whether it was intentional, I can’t say. But I think it draws the reader into a frame of mind that prepares them for the bizarre and brings the reader to accept that, in the end, there is no explanation. One of the elements I found - the teens get lost when the drive decides to leave Pennsylvania by crossing the river into Camden, NJ. The crossing of the river could be viewed as a crossing into the underworld. Keene goes on to describe hookers as living dead, there’s technological failure (car breaks down), and a general decay into chaos.

Another interesting parallel with the Minotaur story is how the final escape is made. Early in the story, one of the kids overhears two of the Cannibal’s talking (while butchering one of his friends - sweet). One comments to the other that he hopes they don’t make it to the basement and find the only way out. Well, that’s what draws the survivors to the basement, where they spend the large part of the book looking for a way out, and most getting killed in the process. But, just like the Minotaur story, the only way out seems to be back the way they came. I say ‘seems’ because, a minor character, I had half-expected one of the characters to tie a string. I think it worked as a plot device, a way to keep the characters moving, but I felt a little confused. There’s a minor character, who I’ll discuss in a later post, that does manage to find his way into this underground labyrinth from a ‘back door’ of sorts. But, this door it seems to be one way, only letting someone come in, not get out. And it’s right near the house. I was a little confused, not because the kids had to go back, but because I was never clear on whether the cannibals knew they were being overheard and intentionally lured the kids down, or if there really was a back door down there somewhere.

Whether Keene used the Minotaur myth as a framework for the story isn’t really something I’m trying to comment on. Rather, I think the Minotaur myth is reflected in a subset of our modern horror stories as the teenagers trapped in the scary [woods, cabin, hotel, house, etc.], chased by the [axe murderer, cannibal, guy with one red shoe, etc.].

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