FEATURED CREATURE: Simon the Gunman
The latest Brian Keene offering from Deadite Press, The Cage was originally published as a standalone book in the Cemetery Dance Novella Series, long sold-out. Now Deadite gives it to us complete with the amazing (hands!!) Alan M. Clark cover intact--and three bonus stories. Upon re-reading it in this edition, I found I liked the bonus shorts, and I still like The Cage--everything but that ending.
You see, like Stephen King, Brian Keene has a "mythos". It's called the Labyrinth, and all of his stories wind through it much like many of King's run through the Dark Tower. The Labyrinth is home to "The Thirteen", deities that humankind both fears and worships. In Keene's The Conqueror Worms, one of them, "Behemoth", wreaks havoc. In The Rising, "Ob" brings the dead back to life. Darkness On the Edge of Town details what would happen if "Nodens" (featured in Dark Hollow and Ghost Walk) did win a battle against a character (Levi Stolfus) from Ghost Walk and A Gathering of Crows--in an alternate reality. It even features "alternate" versions of characters from other books! Now if that didn't slighty confuse you...
I'm sure the hardcore Keene fan would appreciate all that in a novel but most readers, myself included, aren't hardcore Keene fans. For the most part, I love his short stories/novellas, but too often now his novels end up like Darkness On the Edge of Town--books that leave the reader feeling like they just missed half the conversation. DotEoT was just the second Keene novel I had ever read, and after looking up all of the above information regarding it I couldnt help but feel left out. A reader should never have to go searching for answers outside of the book itself unless they read the third books in a series or some sort. Although Keene repeatedly states in interviews: "The inherent danger in a mythos is that you risk turning off new readers who would otherwise try your work. Therefore, knowledge of one of my books is not required to enjoy another. And yet, the connections are there—I just keep them subtle."
One night at Big Bill's Home Electronics a lone gunman named Simon bursts in, shoots, and traps the six remaining workers in the "cage"--the locked, fenced-in area where the store's most valuable items are stored. One by one he takes them out to use for his nefarious reasons as the main character, Jeff, can only fear what happens when Simon takes him. For the most part Keene builds tension nicely, giving the characters realistic, down-to-earth dialogue while they wait to be chosen. The dissapointment kicks in when Jeff finally is chosen in the conclusion, and the reader learns what is really going on. It's a non-ending, and even if you do kind of understand the mythos like I do now, it's still dispiriting. Although the mythos in the story (clarified by Keene himself) is not tied to any past or future mythos, what could have been a neat Twilight Zone-ish ending is turned into something you'd see on Lost; an ending that just raises more answers than it does questions. It was simply too vague for my tastes.
Still, Deadite's edition doesn't leave the reader with an ending like that: we get three more short stories. "Marriage Causes Cancer In Rats" and "Lest Ye Become" are both early Keene works, yet still are enjoyable. Even over a decade ago, Keene still wrote like Keene, and really knew how to hone his writing style. The last tale, "Waiting for Darkness", is not even a page long, but it's one of my favorite Keene shorts ever. It definitely packs a punch, and the twist is much more satisfying than The Cage's.
Bottom Line: at the low price of 8 bucks, Keene's latest is worth it, albeit a slight let-down. Keene can write, but needs to work on being even more subtle with the mythos. (There's a reason King's stand-alone latest, 11/22/63, got better reviews and recognition than any Dark Tower mythos-related book of his ever did.) Keene has said that everything he's ever written runs through it, but as a reader, it feels unneccesary. Not everything needs to somehow tie in! In The Cage's case, it just feels pointlessly tacked-on: a much better ending could be written if taken away from the mythos. Recommended for fans.
Review By Vicente Garcia