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The Damned Highway
on October 5, 2011
The premise of Brian Keene and Nick Mamatas's The Damned Highway is the type that makes a lot of reviewers say "How did they ever come up with that!" (With a subtext, at times, of "What were they smoking?") But in fact a hybrid of the gonzo journalism of Hunter S. Thompson with the horror fiction of H. P. Lovecraft, of radical political critique with cosmic horror, is eminently natural. They have in common a conviction that dark forces are moving behind the scenes, an exclusion from mainstream society, a paranoid intensity that is, under the circumstances, justified and saner than the usual variety of sanity. Cthulhu doesn't exist, but the pathetic tininess and isolation of humanity that he symbolizes is very real; the details of a given iconoclastic political ideology may be unconvincing, but that power serves itself at the expense of the mass of mankind is hardly arguable.
I am, alas, unfamiliar with the work of Hunter S. Thompson, so I can't judge how well Mamatas and Keene have captured his voice, but that their prose has a distinctive voice is indisputable. Cynical, frustrated, forceful, neurotic: descriptive labels come to mind easily enough, but only a quotation can capture it.
"The world has turned dangerous and strange, like some severely deformed child who should have been put down at birth in an act of mercy, but instead has been allowed to live and suffer for far too long. There is something prowling around outside my front door, and though I have heard it many times tonight, I don't know what it is. It can't be the peacocks because I killed them earlier in a moment of blind rage and gripping paranoia, but there is something out there, lurking in the night. It might be a deer or a coyote or a big bastard of a bear, but then again, maybe not, because the darkness has a way of changing things. Darkness is mother nature's LSD, and instead of a wild animal, the thing on my doorstep could be a cop or a politician or even an editor. Worse, it could be a fan. I hate fans as much as I hate editors. They fill my heart with fear and loathing. But never mind that, eh? I am armed with a typewriter and many guns, and I have cigarettes and whiskey, and a wide assortment of pharmaceutical enhancements that the peacocks didn't eat, and with these, I can handle almost anything."
Thompson's mood rarely gets much better as the novel progresses, and the wry bitterness that he maintains even as he finds himself hip deep in a bizarre and terrifying conspiracy, is laugh-out-loud funny. Ordinarily I try to avoid quoting the funny parts of a book, since readers should get to experience them for themselves, but The Damned Highway has so many great moments that I can share a couple and still leave plenty more to be discovered. There's his encounter with a nervous bus station employee:
"The ticket agent seems uneasy, perhaps frightened by the look in my eyes or the smile on my face. Her bottom lip quivers and she tugs at her earlobe. Enjoying the effect I'm having on her, I request a one-way ticket to Arkham. I pay cash, and she takes the bills cautiously, her expression suggesting that perhaps I've wiped my ass with them or sprayed the money with LSD. It is a good idea, and I make a mental note to try it later."
Or his thoughts on discovering Thomas Eagleton undergoing terrible torture at the hands of a Lovecraftian conspiracy:
"First I run to Senator Eagleton. As a journalist, I shouldn't interfere. As someone about to be pummeled to death, I should just leave. As a human being, I should be thrilled to see a real-live United States senator stretched out before me, injured and helpless, his brain full of guacamole. But I am a merciful god above all else, so I do the only thing I can-- push the two tabs of Kirby acid I have with me between his lips."
As the hints above might suggest, The Damned Highway has a hell of a plot, but I don't want to say too much about it: it ought to be experienced the way I experienced it, with no foreknowledge, in a single reading session that makes its breakneck pace and wild turns feel like the literary equivalent of an acid trip, if acid trips also involved profound political statement.
The Damned Highway's notion that Cthulhu might be behind Richard Nixon is more than a jeu d'esprit, the linking of one boogeyman with another. In one of the novel's many clever plays on Lovecraft's mythos and its modern development (others include such locations as Joshi's Place and Pickman's Motel), Thompson is given some very special hallucinogenic mushrooms: fungi from Yuggoth. The first time he takes them, he's granted a vision of a nightmare orgy involving Nixon administration figures and tentacled creatures. But when he gives them to someone else in an attempt to duplicate the experience, the visions that come are more real, and more terrifying. This is a novel of recent political history, of tragedy, despair, and a growing sense of helplessness, as relevant to 2012 as to 1972. As with the Lovecraftian inventiveness, the political insight comes fast and fierce, with a sarcastic edge, but it's not just a joke.
This is one of those books where no review can communicate just how effective it is: how powerful and compelling the narrative voice, endlessly acerbic yet deeply human; how cleverly bits and pieces of real history are reworked on Lovecraftian terms and Lovecraft's stories are given a political twist; how absolutely unique is the overall feel. (One might loosely compare it to Laird Barron, what might be called "macho cosmicism" if that label weren't terribly misleading; but the differences very much outweigh the similarities.) Perhaps the best summation is this: if, on hearing about the concept, you thought, "That would be really amazing if they got it right," have no fear. They did get it right.