‘The Unseen’ by Bryan Smith

For Allison Cook, the weekend trip to a horror convention in Virginia is a fun break from work and humdrum reality. Then she meets a guy who shows her a movie that shouldn’t exist, one that upends everything she thinks she knows about reality itself. 
The movie on the old VHS tape is an unseen and unknown installment of a legendary slasher franchise she’s loved since the dark days of her unhappy adolescence. As soon as she sees it, she knows the movie is the real deal, not a fake or a fan film. She can only come to one impossible conclusion–the movie is from some other alternate reality. It is not of this world.
And she knows one other thing; he must have it. At all costs. And by any means necessary. But unknown to Allison, possession of the tape comes at a higher price than she ever could have imagined.

I’d love to give ‘The Unseen’ a high recommendation. It’s a very strong story that kept me turning the pages and the ending had me smiling in a ‘That’s EXACTLY how this story needed to end’ way that rarely happens. If this was a movie, I’d be queuing up to see it. BUT… at times, the writing should carry a health warning.

So, I enjoyed this book but found myself gritting my teeth at points, not because of the splatter or the sexploitational scenes, but because the text was doing my head in.

What did I enjoy?

Firstly, this is a great book for fans of 80s slasher movies. It doesn’t intellectualise them the way that Grady Hendrix or Stephen Graham Jones do. It just bathes in the joy of fandom. Of being one of those people who know when the Friday The 13th franchise was taken over from Paramount by New Line and the names of every actress that Michael carved up. Of the thrill of losing yourself in movies you’ve watched a hundred times and the frustration of there not having been a new Friday The 13th film since 2009. It captures the feeling of being at a Horror Con where, for once, the fans dressed as Michael Myers or Freddy Krueger or Jason Voorhees or just wearing almost worn-out horror t-shirts, are the normal people in the elevator in the Hyatt and anyone else is clearly somewhere where they don’t belong.

Secondly, it gives a fresh twist on the whole Cursed Object That Demands A Sacrifice trope. It doesn’t overthink it or overexplain it, it just freshens it up and makes it feel contemporary. In this case, the object of desire is an old VHS tape of a Friday The 13th movie that no one has ever seen. I loved the fact that it was an old VHS tape rather than a digital copy. It made it into an artefact, a treasure rather than a commodity and of course, only true fans would have VHS players available to watch it on. The desire for the object was palpable. I also liked that It took a bit longer to notice that possession of the object turned you into Gollum and made you ready to murder your friends.

Thirdly, it does the sex and violence in a classic sexploitation mode. The sex is transactional and impersonal. The violence is fast, vivid, bloody and unashamed of the excitement and relief it brings.

Finally, there’s the ending. I didn’t see it coming but it made perfect sense and was deeply gratifying. That ending would have had me leaving the cinema with a smile on my face.

So what got in the way?  

The writing, especially the parts that described what a character was thinking and the reasons behind their decision. At these points, the writing became horribly clunky – like something a teenage boy might produce when he’s writing a fantasy that excites him but that he wants to make sound grown up and serious.

Here are a couple of examples.

This is Allison, trying to assess the risk posed by Seth, a guy she’s pissed off.

She tried countering fear by reminding herself she knew nothing about Seth. Something about him set off internal warning bells, but there was no tangible proof he was actually psychotic or otherwise unstable. He’d demonstrated no overt tendencies in that area, but that meant little due to the brevity of their time together.

Maybe it’s just me, but I can’t see a twenty-something horror fangirl, who has been drinking heavily using a sentence like ‘He’d demonstrated no overt tendencies in that area, but that meant little due to the brevity of their time together.‘ even inside her own head. It reads more like a police report.

A few pages later we get this description of how Allison spent her afternoon:

Allison spent part of the afternoon cleaning up the place. This didn’t take an inordinate amount of time. Her place was often cluttered, but it was never filthy. Despite loving animals, she owned no pets, so it was easy to maintain a basic level of cleanliness at all times. Once she was satisfied with the state of the place, she went out to a nearby beverage store and bought two bottles of red wine and two six-packs of expensive beer. She considered getting food from the grocery store, but decided they’d have something delivered. Not being much of a cook herself, having little kitchen proficiency beyond the most basic things, this was probably the better option anyway.

I found this kind of leaden prose made me flinch more than any of the violence in the book. It felt like I was reading a slasher story written by someone who spends way too much time reading technical manuals and Reddit fanfiction.

If this writing style had only been used to describe one character, I’d have written it off as characterisation or an attempt at humour, but they are all described this way.

Fortunately, the dialogue is much better and the action scenes flow but there’s still a lot of Did he really write that to describe this? to wade through.

If the writing doesn’t bother you, I think you’ll have a lot of fun with this book. If the writing does bother you, put up with it – the story is worth the irritation.

Bryan Smith is an American Splatterpunk Award-winning author of more than thirty horror and crime books, including 68 Kill, Depraved and its sequels, as well as The Killing Kind, Slowly We Rot, and The Freakshow

68 Kill was made into a movie directed by Trent Haaga and starring Matthew Gray Gubler 

One thought on “‘The Unseen’ by Bryan Smith

  1. Hmmm, you made it through this one, huh? I’m still waffling over whether or not to try his work.


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