Bad Glass by Richard E. Gropp
Reviewed by Lila Garrott
03 December 2012
Richard E. Gropp's debut novel, Bad Glass, is survival horror of a kind that is much more common in video games, "found-footage" horror films, and websites than in novels. It claims to be an assemblage of documents, in this case primarily the protagonist's first-person account and descriptions of photos taken by various characters, which when pieced together produce an atmospheric and nebulous portrait of something inexplicable and terrifying. The anomaly here, the thing which can't be fully grasped by either characters or reader, is whatever is going on in Spokane, Washington, which in Gropp's world is quarantined by the military due to the appearance and disappearance of various spooky animals and people, strange sounds heard from midair, a high incidence of sudden-onset violent mental illness in the population, and a general trend towards everyone in sight dying horribly and randomly. The protagonist, Dean, who wants to make his name as a photographer, manages to bypass the quarantine and get into the city, where he joins a collective household and spends his time attempting to document the strange occurrences. He smuggles his images to the Internet regularly, and of course manages to become very famous, but by that time most of his household have succumbed to incidents which appear to be targeting the various wounds in their psyches, and he's seen so much horror that the outside world no longer matters to him—he is convinced, in fact, whether correctly or not, that the end of that world is coming fast.
Gropp has done several things right: we are offered a plethora of possible explanations for whatever is going on, several of which are entirely convincing and several of which contradict each other, and we are never told which, if any, is correct. The reader has more information than the characters do, but only if they work for it by piecing together various bits of data which the characters would not have thought to correlate, and we aren't told whether the possibilities one can arrive at that way are right either. The prose is undistinguished and workmanlike but not actively bad. Common survival-horror attitudes to women are not in evidence, in that the women we see are competent, have agency, do not require male assistance to survive, and, and this is very rare for a work in this genre, are never sexually assaulted, not even as an angst-intensifying backstory. Some of the creepy special effects are original and well-described. All of this Gropp has done well, which is commendable, because this is the sort of book that could easily have disintegrated into a mass of nonsense.
However, there are serious problems. Note that I used the term "special effects" to describe the novel's weird and nasty incidents, and that's because ninety percent of them have been done over and over and over again. Spiders, wolves, and stranger unidentifiable animals? Check. Distortion of space-time? Check. Peculiar atmospheric effects? Check. Odd surveillance technology jammed in unexpected corners? Check. Photos and recordings revealing things the naked eye can't see, or failing to pick up things the eye can? Check. Symbolic incarnations of various people's traumatic backstories crawling out of the basement? Check. None of this is intrinsically played out. All of it is material which can make an impression. But Gropp is working at a major disadvantage when he tries to use it to make that impression, because the existing classics of this genre get to use visuals, music, movement, and sometimes the personal investment which comes from controlling a video game character. In short, because of the material he is using and the way in which he is using it, Gropp's work invites quality comparisons with, for instance, Silent Hill, and he just doesn't have the same level of art direction. Sometimes he manages to get away with it anyway. Body horror, for instance, is just as expected under the circumstances, but it comes across in the book as entertainingly different because Gropp has the opportunity to write it from inside a character's head, which is something a video game can't do. When Dean and his girlfriend kiss and their lips stick together, the visceral fear and loathing Dean feels as he and the person he cares most about literally melt into one body is made much more effective by the way the reader is also trapped inside Dean's head, unable to pull into a wider shot the way a film or a video game would. We have to figure out what is going on in the scene from Dean's scattered, frightened, and horrified perceptions. This sort of scatteredness, the inability of the viewpoint we are following to grasp something that nevertheless keeps happening, is very hard to do visually and is a constant high point of the novel.
Most of the time, though, what's going on are things video games have done and done better. Since this is a book whose structure consists of the protagonist going from creepy incident to creepy incident while both he and the reader struggle to put the pieces together, it doesn't have a clear plot direction for the reader to focus on if one of the creepy incidents turns out to be boring, and too many of them do. There's no impetus to push on through the boring parts except for the hope of an eventual endgame resolution (which is obviously hundreds of pages away for much of the novel), and the possibility that the next set piece will be better. The main source of suspense in a novel should not be the question of whether the next strange thing that happens will be interesting or not.
There's another genre comparison which it is instructive to make here, which involves the Internet-based form of horror known as creepypasta. A creepypasta site is an attempt to be frightening through simulated documents of fictional events, usually prose-based and sometimes including pictures, video, music, or game-interface elements. The largest and arguably most successful, The SCP Foundation, is entirely crowdsourced. It has a few basic worldbuilding rules, and anyone who follows them may contribute to it. The stories produced on it become effectively frightening not only for themselves (some are and some aren't), but also because they contradict each other in details ranging from tiny to metaphysically earthshattering, and yet the milieu insists that all of them be considered equally true. What, then, is the difference between this, as an art form, and a pseudo-document-based novel with similar content which also uses self-contradiction as a method of producing intensity? Certainly, the SCP, since it is crowdsourced, is far more original than any one person, and has mastered the genre of innately inexplicable horror far more thoroughly; but there is a major and telling difference in the media involved. The SCP does not have the opportunity to do a thing which Gropp could have done, and which is a very uncommon thing in this genre to date: it cannot have novelistic characters. Neither, at this point, can video games. The characters in crowdsourced creepypasta are not three-dimensional, nuanced, and vivid; as of yet, no matter how well-written the video game, it can't put the player inside a character's viewpoint in as immediate a way as the established techniques of prose can. It's the characters who could make a novel of this sort genuinely emotionally affecting and deeply real, because the perspective of a sufficiently interesting person, who reacts and changes because of what is going on around them, can tie together a series of unrelated and inexplicable incidents until the reader puts together, or intentionally cannot put together, the plot.
So how are Gropp's characters? Well, they're all right. Most of them follow the template that combines oddity, trauma, or a sad backstory with something in the city that targets said vulnerability, leading almost inevitably to their messy and predictable death in the next creepy incident. The only things about them which aren't obvious from their introductions are the exact details of their deaths and how many incidents each one will survive before the cast gets smaller again. Dean and Taylor, the girl he's in love with, don't suffer from this issue, but we never get much of a sense of what makes either of them tick. It's reasonable for Dean not to understand Taylor, because she's intensely secretive and he's not good at some kinds of paying attention, but we don't get much idea about him, either. He comes to the city because of what he originally claims was the drive to pursue his art and what he later claims was pure blind stupidity, but we are told that he is an artist, rather than shown it. He's always taking pictures, and we get the descriptions of those pictures, but we don't get the thought process behind why he takes them; we learn, when he learns, that art is necessary to him, that photography really is the last thing he would lose before completely disintegrating, but we don't learn anything about what he thinks about that, or how it affects him to learn that about himself. Dean is not very introspective and not very descriptive, and without either of these traits at its center the book loses bite. The descriptions of photos, which are lovingly detailed, help a little, in that they serve as chapter headings and are descriptions of events which will happen at some point in the chapter. This both produces some suspense about how these events will occur and gives us a little of Dean's emotional reactions to the events, but it's more physical and emotional description than we get in the vast majority of the rest of the text, which feels unbalanced, especially since only two or three scenes have the intense visceral nature of the body-horror bits I previously mentioned. Dean's viewpoint lacks the unique individuality which would enable it to carry the book.
This is a stunningly ambitious novel which succeeds at possibly the most complex of its ambitions, the intentionally ambiguous horror worldbuilding, but which falls flat on character, incident, originality, the through-line of the plot, and maintaining the reader's interest. It's an odd set of failures, but one which does leave me curious about which direction Gropp will choose to take his work next.