Book Review: The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories

reviewed by Gary A. Braunbeck

book coverThe Girl in the Basement and Other Stories by Ray Garton
184 pages; Subterranean Press, 2004
ISBN: 1-59606-012-3

Oddly enough, reading Ray Garton’s collection of stories kept reminding me of the original Get Carter starring Michael Caine.

Let me explain: throughout Carter, you see how Caine’s hardened criminal is complex, strictly moral within the boundaries of his own code, and very, very dangerous and scary. Yet at the end of the film, you walk away with the feeling that, as dangerous as he’s shown to be, the character never really even touched upon the depths of the violence of which is capable…and that makes him all the more formidable and frightening when you view the film a second time.

The same can be said of The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories, which now takes its place alongside Raymond Carver’s Where I’m Calling From and Harlan Ellison’s Slippage as one of the few collections that I immediately re-read upon finishing it. And, like the original Get Carter, as good as it is initially, it’s even better the second time, and a lot of that is due to the remarkable restraint that Garton exercises throughout the title novella and four accompanying stories.

If you’ve read any of Garton’s novels, then you know that he can turn on the gory fireworks with the best of them; in fact, his last 2 novels, Sex and Violence in Hollywood and Scissors, are so gloriously over-the-top that Garton has arguably invented a new sub-genre: that of the Grand Guignol Black Comedy. He remains a master of the horrific set-piece, and some writers (like myself) might consider selling our souls to have half his ability at pacing. But what a lot of readers love about Garton’s work are those amazing fireworks.

Potential readers should be warned that The Girl in the Basement contains no such fireworks, yet the collection suffers not a whit from its lack of violence and gore; in fact, it emerges as all the more intense and affecting for its restraint.

All of the stories in The Girl in the Basement are concerned, at their core, with the same thing: corruption; be it moral, physical, spiritual, psychological, or societal, Garton touches upon corruption in all its attendant forms, even those we don’t often recognize on the surface as being such.

Take the opening title novella. Ostensibly a story about a possessed child, one begins to prepare oneself for all of the usual trapping associated with this type of story, secure in the knowledge that Garton-an expert hand at injecting new life and energy into the more traditional horror tropes-will not fall victim to cliché.

The story focuses on 15-year old Ryan, a young man who, at the beginning of the story, is living in a foster home with several other teens, having endured a series of abusive foster parents before arriving at the home of Hank and Marie Preston. Ryan has a job bagging groceries at a local market. He has a budding romance with Lyssa, another teen in the Preston’s care. He has a troubled (at best) relationship with his mother, a drug addict who is trying to get her life back together. He harbors dreams of becoming a writer, dreams that are encouraged by the Preston’s neighbor, Elliot Granger, himself a published horror writer who is currently recovering from painful hip surgery and must rely on Marie Preston and Ryan for help with many of his physical chores.

Already die-hard fans can see several Garton-esque elements in place; the abused kid, the isolated writer, characters struggling with addiction, the internal scars carried by those survivors who’ve seen the uglier side of life but haven’t yet given up. If you hear echoes of other Garton novellas like "Monsters" and "Dr. Krusadian’s Method" early on in "The Girl In The Basement", I suspect it’s because Garton wants you to; after all, the best way to surprise readers’ expectations is to pull a sleight-of-hand by setting them up to expect more of the same and then pulling the rabbit out of your hat.

Which is not to say that "The Girl In The Basement" is an exercise in narrative and structural trickery (even though there is some sly trickery involved on Garton’s part, and it’s both justified and enviable); this novella is very much its own story, but it’s most definitely not the story you’re expecting.

There’s a 9-year-old, mildly retarded girl named Maddy who’s kept in the basement of the Preston house, you see, and sometimes she talks in the deep, gravelly voice of an adult, one who seems able to predict things, one who knows things about you that no one else knows or has ever known…

Think you know what’s going to happen and how it’s going to happen? Forget it. About the time government agents showed up to "talk" with Maddy in private (something they’ve been doing for quite a while, as it turns out), I had to shake my head in admiration because I had no idea where he was going with this.

What makes this title novella one of the most accomplished pieces of Garton’s career is not just the remarkable restraint he exercises when dealing with the more overtly horrific elements (which at times become almost secondary, and at one point superfluous), but the depth of emotional realism he displays when dealing with the characters. This is hands-down the single most compassionate piece he’s ever written; every character is fully fleshed out, both their strengths and weaknesses, their pettiness and kindness, their courage and cowardice, are on display here, and as horrific as this "possession" of the little girl is, it pales in comparison to the portraits Garton paints of how this horror affects the characters. There is a scene near the end of the story where Ryan has a meal of cookies and juice with his drug-addict mother that is one of the most heartbreaking things you’re likely to read this year, simmering as it is with a palpable sense of desperation, loneliness, terror, and tragic inevitability.

The horrific elements of the story are for the most part kept on the periphery, and while I think this is going to be a turn-off for readers who look to Garton only for fireworks and fury, those readers like myself who look to Garton to always challenge himself as a storyteller and us as readers are going to come away feeling like we’ve just left a feast.

And while "The Girl In The Basement" raises many points and answers many questions about the nature of corruption, it leaves just as many unanswered, and rightly so: if one is powerless to fight against corruption, then is it better to simply turn away and ignore it or use it to your own personal advantage? And does that corrupt you, as well?

I don’t mean to make this sound philosophically heavy or (God forbid) heavy-handed, because it’s a damned entertaining and suspenseful novella, but the depth of emotional maturity and thoughtfulness-as well as the previously-mentioned restraint-elevate this (in my eyes, at least) to the highest form of storytelling that can be found in the horror field; it’s suspenseful, horrifying, emotionally rich, perceptive and wise, and-here’s the kicker-surprisingly intimate. The "possession" of this little girl (once you read it, you’ll understand why I keep putting that term in quotation marks) might be affecting the world and universe at large, but Garton keeps the focus on Ryan and those around him, creating a claustrophobic microcosm that, like all good fiction, mirrors our own everyday lives just enough to make us genuinely uncomfortable enough to question the solidity of the so-called real world surrounding us.

With the exception of the next story, "Cat Lover", all of the stories end with an image of something mudane-a woman crying, a man getting out of his car, someone watching television-that is made darker and more tragic by the context in which it appears; it’s Garton taking snapshots of the everyday and like all good writers making us wonder what’s going on behind these seemingly inconsequential pictures.

"Cat Lover" is an impressive story, made all the more so when, at the end, you realize that you’ve just read a story wherein all that physically happens is that a man has a stroke and spends the rest of the story lying paralyzed on the floor of his home worrying that no one is going to feed his cats. While the shock ending can be seen coming from the second page, "Cat Lover" isn’t about the nightmarish image that closes the story; it’s about loneliness and isolation, and what happens when an individual must suddenly rely on those he/she views as corrupt as their only source of salvation. It’s also one of the most sharply-rendered character studies I’ve read in a long time.

"Reception" is a hard one to talk about without giving away its devastating one-two punch at the end; suffice to say this portrait of a family recovering from the death of one its children manages to achieve in 7 deft pages what I myself strive toward as a writer: to simultaneously chill you to the marrow and hit you square in the heart.

"The Night Clerk" may be my favorite of the shorter pieces contained here-and it’s also the one story in the collection that I think most readers are going to finish and go, "Huh?", if not outright dislike. For starters, it’s not a horror story in the traditional sense-is, in fact, Garton going mainstream. This seeming vignette about a guy who goes to a an all-night convenience store only to meet up with a laid-back yet oddly pompous night clerk reads like a cross between John Cheever and Raymond Carver. Yeah, there’s some violence and tension involved when a masked gunman storms in to rob the place, but this isn’t a story about violence; it’s a tense meditation on the difference between genuine courage and like cowardice…and bear in mind that the courageous character in this piece is not who you initially think it is. Of all the stories in this collection, "The Night Clerk" is the one that might require you to read it a second time in order to pick up on the myriad subtleties of character and foreshadowing that are sprinkled throughout.

The closing story, "Housesitting", brings the overall theme of corruption full circle, as its central character, housesitting for her best friend while she’s on vacation with her husband-uncovers some hidden secrets about her best friend (via some disturbing photographs) that not only forever taint her relationship with her best friend, but corrupt her view of the world around her, as well. The closing scene between the two friends-taking place in a brightly-lighted kitchen on an almost too-ideal suburban afternoon-is Garton writing at the height of his power; as heartbreaking and affecting as this scene is, there is so much more going on beneath the surface, culminating in a single, powerful, beautifully understated final image that will haunt you long after the book is finished-might even, in fact, make you go back to the beginning and start the collection all over again.

The Girl in the Basement and Other Stories is a superb collection, filled with countless surprises, genuine scares, and more than enough emotional depth to satisfy even the most jaded reader.

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