Rather than standard horror fare, Dennis Etchison's CALIFORNIA GOTHIC belongs squarely in the category of family gothic literature. Unlike some of the other reviewers, I think this book is a fascinating read, especially if you are already among those discriminating folks who love Etchison's short stories. But Dennis Etchison's fiction, particularly in novel form, is not for the casual reader as much as for the connoisseur. Sex and scandal? Not so much. Great writing, characterization, and gothic goodness? It's all here.
Fans of gothic literature in particular will delight in the way CALIFORNIA GOTHIC displays Etchison's knowledge of the gothic genre and its traditions, which are wonderfully suited to his talents. This is the type of gothic driven by family dynamics and dysfunction. What frightened me the most in this book was Etchison's terrifyingly accurate psychological portrayal of his characters. I felt like I knew these characters, not as "types," but as people, right down to the innermost secret thoughts they would never want anyone to know. Etchison, in my opinion, is one of the most psychologically astute writers in the field of speculative fiction.
In keeping with the gothic atmosphere, Nature echoes and enhances the novel's drama. "… a dying earthworm … cranked its segments in a desperate circle, signaling for help." The family home—a suburban "… long, boatlike prefab kit that some other hopeful soul had hammered together in the forties …" –can symbolize failure as much as success. The theme of appearance vs. reality dominates in its Southern Californian milieu. What better place for the line between dreams and drudgery to blur?
Then there is the original and brilliant use of film as a gothic device—in this case zombie-flick screenplays as seen through the eyes of a teenage boy—serving as commentary on the ongoing action and conflicted characters. This is an inspired artistic choice, carrying on the story-within-a-story tradition of the most beloved gothic tales.
The novel's main problem lies in its underutilization of the more sensationalistic plot elements, which rather than being shunned, should have been put to better use.
Yes, there is Jude, a mystery woman who, many years ago, was once the lover of the protagonist, Dan Markham. Jude belonged to a cult deliciously named the Church of Satan the Redeemer (CSR). Markham believes that Jude burned to death during a raid and subsequent fire in the CSR compound. Markham, though, has moved on with his life. He's got his slice of the American dream—a business, a home, a wife, a young son on the cusp of adolescence. But now it seems his past is returning to haunt him …
I absolutely love the mentions of the Church of Satan the Redeemer (CSR), a clever reference to the appearance of the devil and satanic rites that go with the gothic territory. But the killer/stalker/possible Satanist plot feels out of place, and also like a wasted opportunity because it's really only mentioned in passing from plot point to plot point. I think the sensationalistic elements could have been explored to satisfy the true-crime types and also used as a vivid backdrop to emphasize the more profound ideas and implications of the novel.
Also, though the deepest thoughts and feelings of Dan Markham and his family are woven beautifully into the fabric of the story, the thoughts of the antagonist are a blank page. I think in this case the thoughts of Markham's nemesis might have provided some chilling contrast to the thoughts of the "good" people in the book.
However, I still recommend CALIFORNIA GOTHIC and give it four stars for being an addition to the family gothic genre with original elements and fantastic characterization.