Brian Keene has a knack for writing some of the most powerful novella length fiction in the genre. His no-nonsense style is well suited for format. Most authors introduce us to the characters and then allow the plot to unfold around them but Keene is a completely different animal. One of the strongest aspects of Keene’s writing is his ability to mesh character development with plot to form a fast paced, suffocating story that gets right to the action and rarely relents. This delightfully streamlined style allows Keene to tell a novel length story over the span of a hundred pages. With that in mind, I was absolutely delighted when I learned that Deadite Press would be releasing a paperback version of the long out-of-print novella, The Cage
For the employees of Big Bill’s Home Electronics, it’s just the end of another workday – until a gunman bursts into the store and begins shooting. Now, with some of their co-workers dead, the hostages are being slaughtered one-by-one, and if they want to survive the night, they’ll have to escape… The Cage.
As described in the summary, the story follows a group of six electronics store employees who are at the mercy of a madman. This man breaks into the store after-hours and locks the group up in the store room for very mysterious, yet surely sinister reasons. The majority of the story takes place in the store room as we play voyeur to the interactions of the employees, all while the mysterious intruder is busy in the front of the store. One-by-one the man brings the employees to the front of the store leaving the remaining hostages to wonder what exactly is happening on the other side of the warehouse doors.
The Cage is the perfect marriage of youthful hope, world-worn wisdom, nerve wracking tension and some gore soaked imagery that will leave your jaw hanging and your unmentionables soiled. What makes this story so damn engrossing is Keene’s ability to intertwine genuine supernatural terror with the everyday horrors that we all experience in our lives. The villain in the story will get your blood pumping and your palms sweating but the reason this tale will resonate with readers is the trials and tribulations of the common man. It is completely evident that Keene knows quite a bit about strife and pain. The characters in The Cage discuss topics such as love lost, growing older and loneliness with such raw authenticity that the reader has no choice but to succumb to the story’s power. There is a certain power in prose that is born from a world of sweat and hardship. Keene wields that power with a reckless abandoned that only few in the genre can ever hope to harness.
It was also interesting to notice the subtle shift in style with the dichotomy between the real life fears and supernatural elements. Keene wrote the conversations between the store employees with copious amounts pain and grit sprinkled in the interactions. These are the conversations that we have had a thousand times yet they continue to be important because they are is the lifeblood of our daily routines and existence. Much like the author himself, there is no pretense with the characters and their interactions as the wear their hearts on their sleeves on every page. There is exchange that was particularly heart wrenching between Roy, the older warehouse employee and the younger store employees that I found to be especially heart wrenching :
“Your kids don’t know you, your wife barely tolerates you. You’re a stranger in your own house. And a stranger in the mirror, too. And when that happens, you look back on the last few decades and wonder where they went.”
These moments of gritty truth make the juxtaposition of the super natural so much more extreme. When Keene isn’t describing the inner-turmoil of the Big Bill’s employees, his writing takes on a cinematic quality that would not be out of place in the world of Cronenberg or Lynch. The main villain in The Cage is donned in black and sports an arsenal that would make Frank Castle giddy. Keene creates one frightening villain who nonchalantly goes about his grisly business with the indifference of a T-1000. I use the Teminator example because this dude is straight out of a late 80’s action film but still maintains a surreal presence that is common with Keene’s other works.. Keene himself seems to realize the cinematic leanings of his writing as the characters joke about the clichés of action films. There is a particularly humorous exchange when the trapped employees attempt to lighten the mood by discussing how their ideal action film would play out.
The Cage comes to a very satisfying finale with absolutely every element of the story getting heightened to extreme volumes (literally and figuratively). Blood flows, hearts break and evil is everywhere. Much like some of my favorite Keene stories, everything ends as it should. The ending is in keeping with the rest of the tale with no surprises. It is always refreshing to read a story that does not stray from a previously established tone and plot in order to achieve a gimmicky twist.
This is a story that is perfect for those looking for a quick scare. It is also a story that is MANDATORY reading for Keene fans that have an interest in his Labyrinth mythology. Readers are treated to some added content as well. Included are three short stories that share the same themes and tone of The Cage , as well as accompanying ‘Author’s Notes’ which add a tremendous amount of insight.