Thursday, November 4, 2010

Bloody Pages Book Reviews

A MATRIX OF ANGELS by Christopher Conlon
(Creative Guy Publishing, April 2011 release)
Review by Lisa Morton

Anyone who has read more than, say, ten horror novels over the last thirty years has encountered this book: A middle-aged writer returns to the small town where he (and yes, it’s nearly always a “he”) grew up, but he must now fight an ancient evil that has taken root in his one-time home. Stephen King’s 1975 classic SALEM’S LOT popularized the theme and is still recognized as one of his finest works; but in the years since then the theme has appeared in literally dozens (possibly hundreds) of lesser works…including a few by King himself.
Then, sometime within the last few years, this theme – calcified by overuse and rendered virtually dead – began to subtly alter. No longer were the protagonists stalwart heroes with a bit of emotional baggage who found redemption by fighting the vampire/demon/spirit/giant space spider/generally amorphous entity. Now they were troubled adults so traumatized by some event from their childhood that they’d hidden or repressed the memory; in Peter Straub’s last novel A DARK MATTER, the protagonist has never asked his wife for details of the traumatic childhood event he didn’t witness. The small town is no longer a bastion of mid-20th-century American values threatened by the murderous antagonist; now the old homestead is revealed to contain hidden anxieties and terrors. Nostalgia turns bitter, friends frequently wind up dead, and there is no salvation for the protagonist. If the lyrical memories of Ray Bradbury’s work seemed to have originally informed the first cycle of these stories, the most recent entries (which may have begun with Glen Hirshberg’s THE SNOWMAN’S CHILDREN and more recently also include Norman Prentiss’s fine novella INVISIBLE FENCES) are likelier to feel more like they owe a debt to the psychology and neuroticism of Alfred Hitchcock.
The baby boomers, it would seem, have decided that their childhoods were anything but idyllic.
Christopher Conlon’s A MATRIX OF ANGELS may be to this current round of troubled writer-returning-home stories what SALEM’S LOT was to the original crop: The pinnacle, the apex, the finest example (if not the first, as LOT was). MATRIX is a superb novel from beginning to wrenching ending, and it’s hard to imagine that any other book in this very peculiar sub-genre will surpass the achievement of MATRIX.
The book opens by introducing us to middle-aged Frances Pastan, a moderately successful author/illustrator of children’s books, but an utter failure as a wife and mother – her teenaged daughter Jess won’t talk to her, and Jess’s father Donald is wary about encouraging communication between mother and daughter. After attending a book festival in Santa Barbara, Frances – who also has an alcohol problem – makes her way north to the small California town of Quiet. Once she arrives there, Frances recalls her year in Quiet: Abandoned by her parents, 12-year-old Frances is a shy, bright girl who arrives to live with her dull aunt and uncle. She is immediately befriended by Lucy Sparrow, the energetic tomboy who lives across the street; Lucy is bold and fearless where Frances is timid and introverted, and the two soon become best friends.
Frances’s reminiscences aren’t all happy thoughts of TIGER BEAT magazine and Donny Osmond, though. One of the masterful things about A MATRIX OF ANGELS is how it builds a spiraling tower of secrets and deceptions. Why Frances has been sent away from her home in Fresno whirls around what middle-aged Frances has done to drive away her daughter and collides with the final fate of Lucy Sparrow and meshes with the unspoken past that ensured Lucy’s doom. Because we know from the beginning that Lucy IS doomed; by the end of the first chapter we’ve been told that Lucy was murdered. MATRIX, then, is no traditional mystery, but is intent instead on exploring the mystery of how Lucy’s death forever altered Frances Pastan. What happened between them? Where did Frances go afterward? Where is Lucy’s killer? These are the bigger questions explored in MATRIX, and the answers provided are why the book is a subtle, but very effective, horror novel.
One of the other remarkable things about MATRIX is its exploration of teenaged girls. Remember that mention above of the overriding use of “he” in most of these horror novels? Frances and Pastan are compelling characters and yet wholly believable; I’d be amazed, in fact, if any female reader of MATRIX won’t be reminded of her own clumsy adolescence, or a friend once cherished who has since vanished. Author Conlon has even explored the (rare for literature) notion of female bullies, showing how peer acceptance and class differences factor into the viciousness of teenaged girls. Lucy’s vivacity also leads her to commit petty acts of crime (joy riding in a neighbor’s stolen car) and not-so-petty acts of violence. Because Conlon has also perfectly drawn the milieu of the mid-California suburb, the novel feels utterly authentic; it almost made me wonder, in fact, if some of my own memories of growing up female in a west coast suburb weren’t tinged with hazy deception.
Like any great novel, MATRIX saves its biggest punch for last…but without giving away any of MATRIX’s astonishing ending (except to say that it occurs in a desert shack not far from Vegas, and is incredibly tense), suffice to say that it offers a final answer that is devastating in providing no comfort or relief. This isn’t the old school, in which the hero fights his way through an apocalypse; MATRIX offers up instead the far more frightening notion that there is no escape from our worst experiences and “closure” is a condition that can never exist.
A MATRIX OF ANGELS also includes the original short story that served as the basis of the novel, and a brief but fascinating note from Conlon about how that story became a full book.
I, for one, am incredibly thankful that it did. I was an unabashed fan of Conlon’s first novel, MIDNIGHT ON MOURN STREET, but MATRIX is even better. It’s horrific, tragic, beautiful, wry, nightmarish, melancholic, and a nearly perfect work of genre fiction.

--Lisa Morton