By Daniel R. Robichaud
For the genre enthusiast, it is challenging to pin down just what the hell kind of story Keepers actually is trying to be. The story comes across like a trip to the Twilight Zone on a tour bus driven by Luis Bunel (with more than a touch of the Marx Brothers as well), it’s Doctor Doolittle gone to hell, it’s a story about memory and loss and strange threats and the dangers inherent in people who wear derbies (never mind bow ties, those round topped hats are untrustworthy and downright sinister). Ultimately, it’s a very human story about the importance of compassion and both its appearance and its lacking in small town American society. In the end, it is a Gary A. Braunbeck novel. If you know the author, you know that means there are touches of the literary, touches of the terrifying, and touches of the fantastic interposing into the everyday. If you don’t know the author, here’s a good shot at seeing what all the fuss, the awards, and the acclaim is about.
Billed as the second installment of the Cedar Hill cycle of stories and novels, Keepers is a work that stands well on its own. Knowledge of the short stories, novellas, and other novels adds depth and resonance, but ultimately this background is unnecessary to receiving a basic enjoyment of the novel itself. The story it tells is whole on its own, but richer as part of that Cedar Hill universe.
What is the story you might be wondering?
Gil Stewart is trying to make a living, trying to get by day to day. It isn’t until he’s part of an accident, gets an unexpected time capsule of sorts in the mail, and then tries to help a dying dog in his yard that he realizes his life has not been a normal one. In fact, there are large swaths of his past he cannot reconcile or even recall. When he tries to show compassion to the dying animal, when he discovers there is a sinister group of derby wearing weirdos following the creature, and when he eventually finds himself isolated (by supernatural means) on his previously safe and quiet small town street, Gil undergoes a terrifying siege both from the derby wearing people and from memories that refuse to be suppressed/repressed any longer.
This history holds some clues to the strange triumvirate of issues that have involved themselves in his life: tying the accident on the road, the unexpected main, they dying dog, and the people who are (ahem) hounding both the animal and himself. Those answers are unexpected and often nightmarish in unusual ways.
The book’s structure jumps from the present to the past, chapter to chapter. Through this method, we have a chance to follow young Gil from a love struck young man who hails from blue collar roots, to the confused fellow he has become in the opening chapter’s present tense and ultimately to a besieged man fighting for something more than a dog who has chosen to die in the crawlspace beneath his house.
Braunbeck reveals Gil’s passions, fears and revelations with a careful eye for detail, nuanced language, and dialogue that seems ripped from dramas and the golden age of television (if you think Rod Serling in his better works, you won’t be far off). Gravitas is granted to the mundane and the extraordinary and the emotional quality is highly charged. These are benchmark qualities for Braunbeck’s work, and they are working quite nicely here.
Unfortunately, the story sometimes feels impelled to deliver messages, and those messages are about responsibility, either to the generations who came before or to those pets and critters who share this world (and often homes) with us. Some readers might find the heavy handedness here discomforting. At its most intrusive, it feels like a community playhouse presentation of a stage drama by the likes of Eugene O’Neill or Arthur Miller – the ideas are strong, and in less assured hands they might be moral sledgehammers instead of the deftly inserted stilettos they are here. They prick us and provoke, but they never try to convert.
Although I am hesitant to do so, I cannot help but give this book a trigger warning label. Animal suffering and death is part and parcel of this story. It is never trivialized, but it is a big part of the story this book has to tell. Braunbeck’s eye does not look away from awfulness.
In many ways the novel’s history is almost as interesting as the story between its covers. Note: I do not have references to cite here apart from numerous conversations with the author himself. Consider this an exclusive view.
The novel first appeared in 2004 from the Leisure line of horror novels. In fact, Braunbeck was part of the lineup of horror authors in Leisure Books at that time, and through them he released five novels. The first of these (In Silent Graves) was a lightly touched up reprinting of his early novel The Indifference of Heaven. The second of these was Keepers, and it arrived to generally mixed reviews. Parts of it were memorable, challenging. Other parts were less enthralling. In fact, Keepers ticked me off the first time I read it because it felt like words were missing. Turns out, they were. Keepers is a novel with a history. Like some of the characters in the book itself, this is not a history we would wish for anyone or anything. It had issues.
Keepers has been through a broken publishing home. It’s been hurt and hurt deeply. It was schizoid when it hit shelves (and mail order Horror book club doorsteps) and left people saying, “Well, this is sort of horror, sort of not.” It left readers wondering why there were plot threads left unresolved. The followup to this one (Mr. Hands)was generally a more pleasurable reading experience. As for Keepers? That novel suffered a lot of editorial intrusion, having whole plotlines removed, new ones inserted, and leaving the book a patchwork whose parts were greater than their sum. However, after eleven years since its original appearance, Keepers has finally resurfaced in an author’s edition from a publisher that seems to understand the author better. The packaging is nicer (but not error free, alas) and the end result is a better reading experience than before.
Oh, and pay no attention to the back cover copy. It doesn’t pertain much. The cover copy tells us “‘The Keepers are coming…’ The last words of a man who died in the middle of a highway through Cedar Hill, Ohio, still echo in Gil Stewart’s ears when he discovers a dying dog in his front yard.” Oh really? Maybe in the Leisure edition of the novel. Here? The fellow in the road in this version spits up blood, tries to speak, “almost makes it” but says nothing. There is a dog dying in Gil’s front yard, and that is what sets off a chain of unusual events in the protagonist’s life, resulting in this short but engaging work.
Note: Just like the Leisure Books first edition mass market paperback in 2004, I paid for the hardcover edition out of my own pocket. I can and have said whatever the hell I want about it.
Keepers by Gary A. Braunbeck