Lucretia and the Kroons by Victor LaValle (Spiegel & Grau, Random House, 2012) is a novella advertised as either being literary horror in its own right or feeding into a novel that’s considered literary horror. Genre labels are inherently dangerous because they predispose the mind to certain expectations. Although, in this instance, I’m not entirely sure what “literary horror” actually means. Is it supposed to be ordinary horror but better written, i.e. written in a more obviously literate style and full of greater pretension? So it’s with some curiosity that I open the file. Ah, yes, another interesting plus. This is only published as an ebook and retails, wait for it, at a stunning US$0.99. Yes, it costs less than snacks at an American movie theatre. Joshua Thompson of Michigan would approve since he’s currently running a class-action law suit alleging US cinemas are gouging patrons on the price of popcorn, soft drinks and lollies. No fear for Spiegel & Grau on that score, then.
Anyway, this is a story about what it’s like to be twelve years old and have your BBF move into the death-any-minute-now zone due to cancer or some other life-threatening disease. For Lucretia, who was already a loner, the prospect of losing her friend is a dark cloud hanging over her. It poisons the already tentative membership of a clique at school and leaves her vulnerable to a story told by her older brother. It seems that back in the bad old 1980s, when crack and other profoundly addictive drugs were doing the rounds, the apartment two floors above was occupied by the Kroons. The parents and their five children were crackheads and terrorised the block. Although the parents died, the children somehow remain in residence, haunting the apartment and deterring anyone else from occupying it. The super has locked it up but the children sneak in and out using the fire escape.
The Unisphere of Flushing Meadow Park becomes central to a trip into another dimension. It may be a drug-induced hallucination as Lucretia takes a hit from a dodgy cigarette, or it may be a sign of a mental disorder, or it may just be real. Who’s to say where the borderline comes between what’s real and what’s imagined. Either way, if it feels real, you have to act as if you’re being pursued by monsters. Because of this, the novella is somewhat difficult to classify. In terms of the language used, it’s not genuinely literary. The vocabulary selection and syntax reflects the point of view which is that of a twelve-year-old girl. Yet, equally, it’s not a young adult book aimed at teen readers because the intention of the content is to address rather more adult concerns. Although it’s always appropriate for authors who expressly target the teen market to write honestly about the difficult issues like how we should relate to those who are dying or what we should feel if those we love should die, I have no sense that Victor LaValle is directly interested in offering comfort or advice to younger readers. Rather he’s exploiting the less sophisticated trappings of horror that might afflict the mind of a young girl and using those images as the basis of an exploration of what a mind is capable of doing when under pressure.
I suppose you would have to say that a story which has monsters chasing a protagonist is intended to be taken as horror. But the real intention is summed up in the final paragraphs when the omniscient author offers a different view of the protagonist’s experiences. At that moment, it all becomes rather more tragic than horrific. It’s about the sense of loss and desolation that cannot find expression in a young mind. There’s only raw emotion without the structure that comes from the accumulation of life experiences to draw on. Only when you have lived through different sets of circumstances do you develop perspective. The first time always comes as a shock because there are no convenient metaphors to draw on to capture the internal meaning of what you feel. The understanding only comes later when you can look back and see more clearly what you were trying to articulate. As a final thought, I was close to death on several occasions as I was growing up. Many of the children in my peer group did not survive into adulthood. I was also surrounded by people carrying horrific injuries from the war. Many of them also died. This has given me a rather different outlook on the world of injury, disease and death. Today’s children have no comparable exposure to pain and loss. They have no protections or defences. We should pity them because they are so unprepared for the hardships of life. The one sliver up hope held up in this novella is that, if you can look past your fears, sometimes help can come from surprising quarters. People are not always what they appear to be. Lucretia and the Kroons represents an interestingly provocative exploration of the issues and is well worth $0.99 of your money.
A copy of this book was sent to me for review.