Lost in the bookshop

Posted on July 30, 2006


By Glenn Fisher

“I wanted to write a genre book initially when I started Lunar Park, that’s what it was supposed to originally be.”
– Bret Easton Ellis BBC Collective, 2005

Bret Easton Ellis’ most recent novel, Lunar Park, is, by his own admission, a genre book. In numerous interviews Ellis has openly talked about Lunar Park as “an homage to Stephen King and to all the Warren and EC Comics that [he] grew up with as a kid.” As well as the work of Stephen King, 1990’s Secret Window, Secret Garden for example, it also draws parallels with the work of Wes Craven, particularly 1994’s New Nightmare, for its dealings with author versus author’s own creations; Lunar Park can further be considered as being influenced by such seminal horror works as Mary Shelley‘s Frankenstein (1818). When considering Lunar Park as a genre work, it is interesting to note that though the book utilises the codes and conventions present within the horror genre it is not exclusively a horror novel. The novel can be deconstructed into two easily defined sections; before the story within Lunar Park escalades into a haunted house story, it is, in essence a confessional work in the mould of early Philip Roth novels, The Ghost Writer and Portnoy’s Complaint, for example. It is this internal genre conflict that makes the text so interesting when considering its use of genre; concluding whether it is prototypically a horror story, confessional work or social critique may be moribund; as Todorov argues “a new genre is always the transformation of one or several old genres.” Ellis’ Lunar Park may well be the definition of its own genre.

It is possible to consider a definitional approach to deconstructing Lunar Park. It employs specific codes and conventions familiar to the horror genre:

— Patrick Bateman, a serial killer (who featured as the protagonist of Ellis’ early novel American Psycho (1991)), mysteriously appears in the hometown of Lunar Park‘s protagonist, a fictionalised Ellis, and begins to recreate the murders carried out in American Psycho.

— Ellis, as protagonist, receives emails from the Bank where his father’s ashes are held in secure storage. The emails are blank, the only information being the time received, which is the same time as his father’s death.

— The suburban home Ellis and his fictionalised family inhabit begins to physically transform, its outer appearance gradually stripping back to reveal Ellis’ childhood home, the one he shared with his father.

— As Ellis walks through his home at the height of the supernatural occurrences lights eerily flicker.

— Similarly to Patrick Bateman, a previous Ellis creation takes on a life of its own. A somewhat Freudian mound of hair, its only feature a gruesome, largely fanged mouth attacks him and his children.

— A possessed child’s toy, Terby, kills and leaves ravens around the house and leaves prominent scratch marks at doors to the family members’ bedrooms.

The events identified here clearly indicate conventions commonly used within the horror genre. Universal signs such as flickering lights, ravens and possessed creatures all guide the reader to predetermined associations. Lights flickering ominously within the context of a paranoid protagonist signify to the reader that something unnatural is behind their faltering. It is, however, in Ellis’ adoption of these horror conventions that confusion, or even conflict, is caused in using the definitional approach to positioning Lunar Park in a specific genre. At the same time that Lunar Park‘s narrative develops into what would initially be considered horror, Ellis uses a device that would not normally be considered a structural code of horror. The narration begins to separate into two voices: that of the fictionalised Ellis and that of ‘the Writer’.

The following extract, a precursor to the narrator’s separation, illustrates both how Ellis utilises conventions and structural codes of the horror genre and how, at the same time, he uses literary devices – a form of meta-fiction – to undermine Lunar Park as purely horror.

Miller and I were facing the grand staircase that flowed into the foyer and the adjacent living room.
There were clicking noises.
(I am not going to defend what I am about to describe. I am not going to try and make you believe anything. You can chose to believe me, or you can turn away. The same goes for another incident that occurs later on.)
The only reason I witnessed this was because it happened so quickly, and the only reason I did not immediately turn away was because it seemed fake, like something I had seen in a movie – a prank to scare the children. The living room might well have been a screen and the house a theatre.
It was lurching down the staircase, pausing on various steps.
It was tall and had a vaguely human form, and though it was skeletal it had eyes.
Rapidly my father’s face was illuminated in the skull.
And then another face replaced it.
I was stunned into rigidity.
My panting could not be heard above the meters or the cameras.
The skeleton-thing was now standing at the bottom of the staircase.
Within the skull were eyeballs.
Suddenly, it launched itself toward us.
[Page 272]

The predominant thread of the passage is typically horror. Conventions, such as skeletal apparitions and paranormal detection meters and cameras and stylistic codes, such as the use of language (“lurching”) in isolation suggest horror. However, Ellis’ bracketed, meta-fictional aside begins to question the use of these conventions. The narrator doubts how genuine these conventions are; perhaps apparition is hallucination? Is this horror story merely a surreal internal breakdown of the drug-addled, emotionally troubled masochist painted so vividly in the novels opening chapters? Such cynicism may be unfounded: the plea to accept such conventions as genuine, genuine in itself. The question, once raised, elevates Lunar Park above simply being placed in the horror genre, regardless of the author’s original intentions.

Lunar Park relies heavily on the concept of intertextuality. By openly referring to the novel as a work with its roots equally in Stephen King and Philip Roth, Ellis presumes to some extent that his readers have an assumed knowledge of their works, thus enabling them to know what to expect and in part to justify the work. Interestingly, it is not pretentious, to assume that most readers of Ellis may indeed be familiar with the works of Roth but not necessarily those of King. It is fair to assume that Ellis’ audience will be aware of King on a rudimentary level – it is undeniable that King is a celebrity in his own right – but it is unlikely they will have read much of his work, or previously considered doing so. This works both ways: visa-versa, regular readers of King are unlikely to be entirely familiar with the works of Roth. Though it is folly pander to stereotypes, like Roth, Ellis, his previous works in mind, is considered a ‘high-brow’ author, belonging to what would be thought a more literary canon. King, however would be bracketed with more populist horror, thriller and crime writers (their writing is no less accomplished, simply prey to long established prejudices). It is in this sense that Lunar Park confounds its audience: its refusal to work within the boundaries of the family resemblances of one particular genre and its attempt to straddle the preconceived echelons of fiction, challenge the expectations of its perceived audience.

This challenge leads us to consider what it is that Ellis’ readers use his work for, what gratification do they hope to receive from his works? Since his first novel, Less Than Zero (1985), Ellis has been considered the voice of his generation: a generation of disaffected, cynical, apathetic young people born of a rebellion to the rise in consumerism, capitalism and materialism (particularly in America during the Reagan eighties). This generation has since been labelled ‘Generation X’, a term coined from one of Ellis’ contemporaries, Douglas Coupland and his debut 1991 novel Generation X. The use of drugs, liberal portrayals of sex and controversial extreme violence in his books have afforded Ellis a state of celebrity and a cult following. At a recent reading in London, to promote Lunar Park, few of the audience were over thirty-five. Yet Ellis has grown older; now forty-one, Lunar Park, at its heart, sees a more sentimental and forgiving author. Far from the expectations of his perceived audience, Ellis has produced a novel that is half genre horror, not gruesome, sexual violence horror, but supernatural haunted house horror. It is interesting then to consider how effective the use of codes and conventions of the horror genre used by Ellis in Lunar Park are in relation a perceived audience that may not be familiar with genre fiction. It is important to note that an element of this Generation X is its reliance on and consumption of popular culture, particularly films. It is perhaps here where Ellis hopes his perceived audience will have acquired the assumed knowledge required to appreciate the use of intertextuality and uses of code and conventions specific to the horror genre. A wider audience will have seen a Stephen King film adaptation than read one of his novels. This presumption is further reinforced in the passage quoted earlier. When Ellis writes “like something I had seen in a movie,” and “the living room might well have been a screen and the house a theatre,” it could be argued that he is informing the reader, giving them a cultural reference they will be familiar with, subconsciously, or even consciously, justifying the horror conventions used in the novel.

Taking such risks as to possibly alienate his perceived audience leads us to question why Ellis would chose to make Lunar Park a genre novel. Why chose to tell a haunted house story? When deciphering Ellis’ decision it is important to examine his personal motivations. Beyond the confessional element and beneath the haunted house story on the surface of Lunar Park lay a distinct personal message; implicitly the novel is an exercise in forgiveness. Lunar Park is Ellis coming to terms and forgiving his deceased father. In an interview on BBC Radio Four’s Front Row, Ellis is quoted as saying “you will always be haunted by the relationship you have with your father.” His choice of the word “haunted” is particularly apt when examining the genre of Lunar Park. Ellis has spoken previously about the relationship with his father. It was always a volatile one and Ellis has not been afraid to use the word ‘hate’ when discussing the matter. Ellis has described Patrick Bateman, the protagonist of American Psycho, as being an extreme metaphor for his father. Serial killer aside, Bateman is the personification of the gentrification seen in the Reagan eighties. Ellis saw his father as such a man. When Ellis’ father passed away in 2002, Ellis used Lunar Park to deal with his anger and consider their relationship in a mature, thoughtful way. As mentioned earlier, Ellis’ protagonist in Lunar Park is a fictionalised version of himself. Some of Lunar Park is fact, some fiction, which parts are which is not necessarily clear. The fictionalised Ellis does, however, receive blank emails from the Bank where his father’s ashes are in secure storage and eventually this fictionalised Ellis comes face to face with a ghostly version of his father. By adopting this supernatural element, hiding behind the codes and conventions of horror, Ellis is able to implicitly come to terms with his father’s death and the unresolved conflict of their relationship, eventually reaching a resolution between fictional father and son, and by extension himself and his own father.

As well as the relationship between father and son, Ellis also uses Lunar Park to examine the relationship between author and his work. As previously discussed, Patrick Bateman returns to Ellis’ pages in the form of a student at the college the fictionalised Ellis is teaching. This Bateman reincarnation begins imitating the fictional killings described by Ellis in American Psycho. A second Ellis character, created in his childhood writing, is also given life and threatens the Ellis of Lunar Park and his family. By using this idea of an author’s creation turning on him, Ellis aims to examine in Lunar Park what control an author has over his work once it is released into the public domain. When Ellis originally wrote American Psycho, it was initially banned. Eventually the novel was published, but into a storm of controversy. Ellis was heavily criticised for the novel. He was proclaimed as the biggest misogynist in America, and he was lambasted for exploiting women’s rights. From various interviews at the time of publication and when speaking about the allegations today, it is clear Ellis feels the work was misunderstood. In his opinion it was a work that in fact supported women by making the protagonist, who is a misogynist and abuser of women, an unreliable narrator and the novel’s true target for criticism. It is clear that Ellis is interested in how an author loses control over his own work once it is published. The work becomes something else to be interpreted in entirely different ways by its audience, regardless of the author’s original intentions. Aside from Ellis choosing to write Lunar Park as a horror story for personal enjoyment, the codes and conventions of the genre have afforded Ellis the opportunity to examine and deal with his personal agendas in a more palatable way. Where an outright justification for American Psycho may not have been possible, Lunar Park allows Ellis to do just that under the guise of a haunted house narrative.

Contained in all Ellis’ work is an element of critical social satire. In Lunar Park it is less predominant but still the book is littered with his sociological views, mocking overly protected children, satirising ‘Practise Parties’, all to liberal prescribing of Attention Deficit Disorder medicine, suburban contentment and marriage counselling.

A reader will not find Lunar Park in the horror section of the local bookshop; it is unlikely that Bret Easton Ellis will ever be seen next to James Herbert or Stephen King. It is doubtful that any reader of the horror genre will ever read Lunar Park. Whether readers of Ellis will now traverse the bookshop to consider the horror section remains to be seen. What is evident is that with Lunar Park Ellis has confounded the expectations of his perceived audience and exploited the codes and conventions of the horror genre to produce a piece of work that itself traverses the bookshop’s shelf regardless of whether the reader is willing.

Glenn Fisher was born in Grimsby, in a county that no longer exists, in 1981. After working in Local Government since leaving college in 1997, he took very early retirement in 2004 to concentrate on writing. He is currently studying on the Professional Writing degree course at the Grimsby Institute.

Posted in: Essays