SOUTH AFRICAN AUTHOR Lauren Beukes’s latest novel is less SF than it is mystery, suspense, and horror, riffing on both serial killer and haunted house prototypes. The basic premise has been used before. It immediately calls to mind Dean Koontz’s novel Intensity, in which a female protagonist hunts a serial killer after witnessing him murder her friend and her friend’s family. Beukes’s protagonist, Kirby Mazrachi, goes on a similar hunt, but under very different circumstances, and with significantly more finesse. The person she witnesses the serial killer murder is herself, and the serial killer, Harper Curtis, unlike Koontz’s ego-possessed Edgler Vess, is possessed by a house that allows him to travel through time.
Due at least in part to its premise and the ever-increasing popularity of serial killer TV shows (à la Dexter), movies (à la Hannibal Lecter), and novels (à la Patricia Cornwall, James Patterson, etc.), The Shining Girls has already generated a lot of hype. In 2011, several publishers battled for the rights to the book. This was the same year that Beukes won the Arthur C. Clarke Award for Zoo City, a neo-noir, Kafkaesque SF novel in which crooks are turned into animals for their crimes. There’s no doubt Beukes is a gifted writer, and The Shining Girls, as an editor’s note in the beginning of my Advanced Reader Copy suggests, is in fact “elegantly written, wonderfully peopled, and thematically rich.” But it is not about to reinvent any wheels, make us rethink the dynamics of genre or narrative, or even shock us in new and improved ways with innovative renderings of gore and grotesquerie, a primary m.o. of many serial killer texts. The publisher, of course, would have us believe otherwise, and there’s nothing surprising or ultimately wrong about that. But the novel will surely do its job: make the author and the publisher good money while putting the author’s name in brighter lights, then be made into a big budget film.
Today’s publishing climate increasingly compels authors who want to have prosperous careers to write novels that are easily adaptable into films. This might include the following advice: write “nuanced” formula fiction, write straight-shooting plots, write transparent or semi-transparent prose, write “nuanced” stock characters, and write for the widest audience possible in a given field or genre. The “best” novels of this kind will even be broken up into three “acts” so that they are readily translatable into standard screenplay form. Whereas Beukes clearly has her eye on the cinematic prize, The Shining Girls does break some rules, particularly in terms of its narrative layout, which is not sequential but a temporal pastiche. Set in twentieth-century Chicago, each chapter focuses on a specific character (many of them Harper’s victims), jumping back and forth among perspectives, timeframes, and sometimes voices, although the individual chapters always unfold in a lucid, linear fashion. There are upwards of ten focal characters, but Kirby and Harper get the most attention.
Harper’s temporal home base — the point where he is introduced to readers and commences his time-travelling killing spree — is 1931 during the end of Prohibition and the beginning of the Great Depression. A cold-hearted, peripatetic lowlife, he strangles a blind woman for her coat and finds a mysterious key in the pocket. Like a divining rod, the key draws him to a condemned tenement, enticing him with “the sound of crackling music, a faraway voice like a radio beckoning to be tuned in.” The House (always with a capital H) is a gateway to the past and future; each doorway he passes through takes him somewhere else, and he is able go where he wants. “He only has to think of a time and it will open onto it, although he can’t always tell if his thoughts are his own or if the House is deciding for him.” There are limits, however (e.g., the House won’t let him go further into the future than June 13, 1993, the day Kirby finds him, kills him, and burns down the House), and Harper spends most of his time in the early ‘30s, late ‘80s, and early ‘90s.
While it isn’t concretely explained in the novel, it is implied that girls “shine” for Harper (and the House) by way of their artistic sensibilities, proclivities, and/or demeanors; the back cover description says they are “bright young women, burning with potential.” Kirby, for instance, is an intelligent punk-rock free spirit reminiscent of Stieg Larsson’s Lisbeth Salander in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo and its sequels (another instance of Beukes riffing on a prototype, this riff quite timely in light of the movie’s recent success). The girls’ names appear to Harper on a wall in the House in the form of a hit list; one by one, he carries out the House’s orders, which are aligned with his sadistic desires. The murders are grisly and often involve disembowelment. Kirby’s in particular — i.e., her attempted murder, which occurs when she’s sixteen in 1989 — is described in great detail. Unknown to Harper, however, she survives, and three years later, in 1992, she gets a job as an intern sports writer at the Chicago Sun-Times so that, on the sly, she can do research and figure out who tried to kill her.
The novel’s dominant subplot involves Kirby’s relationship with her boss, Dan Vasquez, who, as a paternal love interest, functions much like Mikael Blomqvist in Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. Dan apprehensively supports her efforts to uncover the identity of her would-be killer. When Kirby does find him, Harper has likewise found her, discovering an article with her name on it in the newspaper. Dan comes to her aid in a climactic knock-down-drag-out fight that takes place in the House through multiple timescapes.
Beukes skillfully interweaves and develops her characters via the temporal montage of the novel’s design. I like the idea that the chapters might allude to and play upon the portal-doorways, and that the book itself, like Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves, is a kind of haunted house. But there is no meta-consciousness here, and the House is not haunted to any meaningful degree beyond its vague connection to Harper and its role as a death-dealing gateway. The House — its motive, its energy, its evil — is never explained. All we learn in the end is that Harper’s relationship with it was not so much “a possession as an infection. The House was always his. Always him.” And yet it is not a delusion on his part; other characters time-travel through the House too.
The House, then, is not really a character, as it tends to be in many haunted house narratives. But Beukes has a clear talent for characterization; even secondary characters are interesting, evocative, and possess depth. More impressive is the novel’s historical context and her portrayal of the past, which are full of cultural references that filmmakers will doubtless take pains to reconstruct (especially 1930s Chicago). According to the novel’s press release, Beukes spent a lot of time researching “the inner workings of the Chicago Sun-Times” and “radium dancing girls of the 1930s, the profession of one of Harper’s victims. She dug information from out-of-print books, videos, photographs, and personal histories and supplemented her research with personalized tours of Chicago and interviews with the city’s employees.”
Obviously I wanted more from The Shining Girls — something, perhaps, that approached the artistic chi or aura of the shining girls themselves. But the novel is precisely what it wants to be: a creative recycling of old ideas and characters that will appeal to popular audiences on the page and on the screen. Given Beukes’s command of language and storytelling, it will certainly be among the best-written books on sale at Walmart.