Thursday, August 16, 2012

THE CENTURY'S BEST HORROR FICTION #98: A review of "As Above, So Below" by Brian Hodge

So far, Pelan has done a good job of avoiding religious horror. You know the kind. If you don’t believe in God and Satan and all of that crap, you won’t be horrified by such a tale. Hodge presents an interesting alternative, though. It is a religious horror story, but it’s not quite what it seems. In fact, it has more in common with SF than horror, but there is still plenty here to horrify.

When you get down to it, this is the story of Austin and Gabrielle. When they were kids, they were the closest of friends. When they grew up, they became lovers. And then they became separated so badly that they go eleven years without seeing each other. But even though they’ve found new lovers, they can’t stop thinking about each other. This is the story of how they came to love one another again.

Gabrielle is now on the masthead as a reporter for a big New York magazine. One day, she gets a call from Austin, asking her to come to the unapologetically named city of Miracle, UT. She thinks it’s just some bullshit excuse for him to try to get back with her, but he says it’s a huge story, and she should write it off as an expense with the magazine. With great reservations, she goes along with this and is very, very pleasantly surprised.

It should be noted that Miracle is one of those New Age-y cities from the ‘Nineties, the kind where they go on and on about how special they are, how magical their environment is, all that stuff. There are even stories about how an angel has been seen there. People seeking hope flock to Miracle, but eventually the bottom falls out when people realize it’s a pipe dream. Except . . . it isn’t. Only Austin knows this, though. On a walk in the wilderness, he comes upon Memuneh, who he first believes to be an angel. He later discovers that this creature is actually something called a Kyyth.

As it turns out, this isn’t the first Kyyth he’s met. In a flashback to his childhood, we witness him and a youthful Gabrielle playing on a beautiful summer day. They decide to hop a train just for fun, and she does so successfully. Austin . . . not so much. He slips and falls under the train’s wheels, and to the best of Gabrielle’s recollection, she saw him cut into pieces.

But Austin doesn’t remember this. He comes back to himself in a cave where they used to play, but someone else is keeping him company. Another Kyyth. It is this fellow who enlightens Austin as to the nature of the universe, about how we’re all more space than matter, and that we can will anything to happen. That’s exactly what Austin did: he willed the separated pieces of his body to come back together.

He uses this information throughout the rest of his life, dying several times and always managing to reconstitute his body through his willpower. At the same time, he realizes he’s mustered some kind of small control over nature, as well. He can manipulate windstorms to a certain degree.

But now that he’s met Memuneh, he wants to let the rest of the world in on the secret, which is why he invites Gabrielle out to Utah. Her being a reporter, and all. And at first, she resists the truth of the matter, but she is easily convinced by Memuneh. At the same time, she’s kind of terrified because the Kyyth doesn’t seem to have all the answers. The fact that a kind of creature more powerful than humans still doesn’t know everything throws her off. She then learns that there is a god, but he has abandoned creation, leaving the Kyyth in charge.

This is some pretty deep stuff, and it’s hard not to be preachy with this kind of story. Yet Hodge seems to pull it off. It’s a pretty scary thought, a world abandoned by its creator, but it’s also empowering, thanks to the Kyyth’s message that you can do anything you want. Even if you can never escape your natural body’s death, you can still form yourself and, to a certain degree, the world around you.

But there’s always a snake in Eden. SPOILER ALERT: Austin and Gabrielle fall back in love with each other, and now they have to tell their lovers about it. Gabrielle plans to tell Philippe about this, but she never quite gets around to it. Austin, however, does indeed tell Scarlett about his plans. What he doesn’t count on is that Scarlett is one of the Kyyth. She doesn’t take too kindly to being spurned, so she goes back to Gabrielle’s B&B and murders her, cutting off her feet to deliver to Austin for reasons that are apparent to people who know the story.

This causes Austin to flip out. He loses his shit as Memuneh reveals himself to the people of Miracle, creating an orgy of love and fellowship, all while Austin is grieving the loss of the person he’s loved the most his entire life. When he finds out what happened, he sets loose all of his primal energy and wipes out the entire city of Miracle, except, as it turns out, for Scarlett. She comes to him and tells him what the Kyyth really do: they spur humanity on, molding them into better creatures. That sounds too inspiring, though; Hodge makes it very clear that the Kyyth see people as beasts of burden that have to be whipped into shape. Without their help, people would still be miserable monkeys.

She then marvels at Austin’s resistance to death, but now that Gabrielle’s gone, there’s only one way to find her. Austin finally lets go, and the atoms of his body come apart. He is the first to take the next step of evolution: moving beyond the need for a physical body. He soars through the multiverse, seeking out the love of his life.

Which was Scarlett’s plan all along. She needed humanity to make that next step, and Austin was the only one capable of doing it. Now that he’s succeeded, she hopes that others will follow his example. Very 2001-ish of her. END OF SPOILERS.

This is really a work of genius, a brilliant horror story that only an SF writer could bring us. Pelan expresses a jealousy of Hodge in his intro, and by the time readers are finished with this story, they would most likely tend to agree.

And even if they’re done with this story, this story won’t be done with them. Read it and find out why.

[This story first appeared in FALLING IDOLS and cannot be read online at this time.]

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