‘Bad Glass’ is the debut novel from Richard E. Gropp. who won the Suvudu Writing Contest beating more than 700 aspiring authors. It is not what I would call SF but more urban horror as it is set in the present day in a city in eastern Washington, USA. Residents of Washington in Tyne & Wear UK can breathe easily as the horror is at least initially US specific and not in any of their neighbouring cities.
When reports start to emerge of strange goings-on in the city of Spokane, the US military quickly move to quarantine the city, evacuating the inhabitants and setting up road blocks to stop access. Some of the people refused to leave or just hid and are still present in the city. It is the whispers of events and strange happenings from these people that turn up on the Internet, despite the military crackdown that drives Dean Walker to pack up his camera, supplies and a change of clothes and attempt to get into the city. Walker wants to be a photographer and believes that this is the big opportunity to make a reputation for himself. It is also probably the last hope of avoiding a job in accountancy at his father’s firm.
The first page starts with a sentence, ‘This is the photograph that you know:’ Directly below this sentence is a graphic description of the photograph. The description is contained within a box with a thick black border. I just don’t have the literary skill to describe the photo and do it the justice it deserves without copying the authors text word for word. Suffice to say, the subject is a dead soldier and the manor of his death is shocking and just plain wrong. The expression, ‘just plain wrong’, can be used for an awful lot of what the reader is going to experience as they progress into the novel. Many chapters contain a written description in a heavy border with the majority being of photographs taken with Dean Walker’s camera. There are also a few descriptions in the same style of video sequences and notebook journals. These descriptions add to the haunting and uneasy feeling that something is not quite right. It is a feeling the reader can expect to get whenever they pick up the book.
After the first horrific photograph description, the novel continues from the perspective of Dean Walker as he runs into an army checkpoint. The writing style is very crisp and clear, making the whole situation and characters believable. One of the soldiers is indifferent and just follows orders, while the other soldier has a more friendly approach to Dean. The friendly soldier appears to have had a recent traumatic experience resulting in his behaviour varying from normal to a bit odd. With the guidance of this friendly soldier, Dean manages to get access into the city, which is where things start to go wrong. Very wrong, indeed.
Initially, Dean meets up with a character nicknamed Weasel, who escorts him to the city centre where other people who avoided the evacuation congregate. Weasel is rightfully named and during the ensuing fracas, Dean experiences first hand just how the aspects of the city are just plain wrong. They are horrifically wrong enough to frighten Dean sufficiently enough to make him throw up. Traumatised and not knowing what else to do, Dean sits on the curb edge until he is befriended by a lady called Taylor who invites him back to the commune she shares with a handful of other people. I don’t want to discuss the plot from this point on to much as it is difficult to do so without giving away spoilers. Each person in the commune has his or her own part to play in the coming weeks, including Weasel who has a bit part (pun intended but you will need to read the book to get the pun).
There is one passage of the book that sticks out in my memory and that is Dean’s dialog with the Pulitzer Prize winning Photographer Cob Gilles who remained in the city. It is in this dialog that Gilles mentions the phrase ‘bad glass’ while venting his fury at how photographs lie with pictures. It is a very insightful although brief section. Cob Gilles fluctuates between periods of normality and insanity during his discussion with Dean. He, along with most people in the city, seem to be slowly losing their grip on what they remember as reality. It affects people in different ways but everyone has to make the effort to keep calm and carry on. For those who are too tired or just worn away by the city to carry on just appear to fade out of world of those who carry on.
The ending of the book will no doubt annoy some people as there are no explanations or no tying up of loose ends. Normally, these types of endings annoy me but with this book, it feels right and fitting as the world experienced by Dean Walker within the city limits of Spokane is so utterly beyond the limits of our understanding. The military and scientists can’t explain how it emerged in Spokane nor can they adequately describe what is going on. It weirdness just is and the reader has to accept that as nobody is going to explain it.
I do think this is an exceptional debut book and one to be recommended.
(pub: Del Rey/Ballantine Books. 411 page small enlarged paperback. Price: $15.00 (US), $18.00 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-345-53393-7)
check out website: www.delreybooks.com
released: 25 September 2012