As he has done in the past, Tony Burgess combines lyricism with graphic, cinematic violence in his two newest works of fiction. Published by different small presses, each book contains precisely rendered portraits of small, southern Ontario communities that become engulfed in bloodshed.
Though Ravenna Gets is a collection of loosely connected stories and People Live Still in Cashtown Corners is a novel, the stylistic trajectory of each book is strikingly similar. In both cases, the early sections introduce characters who are subsequently victimized. Later on, the rules change as supernatural or apocalyptic elements encroach upon victims and victimizers alike. In both books, this transition speaks to the transformative power that purposeless violence has on the human psyche, not just for the characters, but for the reader.
With its numerous characters, settings, and shifting points of view, Ravenna Gets is the more ambitious of the two. The residents of Ravenna are regular folks, usually working class, with bad habits and quotidian concerns. The first few stories introduce relatively benign domestic moments that quickly escalate into violence. Sometimes the perpetrator is a faceless stranger, sometimes a family member, a neighbour, or a friendly acquaintance. Inevitably, a bullet will embed itself in a forehead, an axe will cleave a cranium, or a pitchfork will impale a kneecap. Usually no more than four or five pages long, the stories rarely establish a cause for the violence – it just erupts, and the stories end as arbitrarily as they began.
In some cases, attacks are organized: a young woman assists an older male sharpshooter; a gang of boys armed with farming implements attacks a pedestrian. In “The Clock Tower,” a hockey mom, two teenage boys, and a man named Clarence arm themselves with electric saws, baseball bats, and a javelin in a coordinated effort to fend off an onslaught of assailants. Elsewhere, attackers act alone and seem motivated by obscure, private interests.
In many cases, the victims are unarmed and unprepared for the violence that befalls them. In “102 McAllister Street,” the collection’s most disturbing story, a mother carves up her adult son with a kitchen knife while a pornographic horror film plays on her DVD player. Just prior to this scene, the narration slips into the second person, creepily implicating the reader in an anatomically impossible sex act. Ultimately, the lack of reasonable explanations for the violence means Ravenna Gets’s body count raises far more questions than it answers.
People Live Still in Cashtown Corners is a more satisfying book. Narrated by Bob Clark, an unassuming gas jockey who goes on a killing spree, Cashtown Corners is not devoid of excessive gore. But unlike the stories in Ravenna Gets, Bob’s account of the most eventful week in his otherwise lackadaisical life offers some psychological context for the carnage.
Bob is eccentric, and his perception is quirky. He is undeniably awkward but, psychotic urges aside, not unlikeable. His first murder is spontaneous, the victim an obnoxiously loquacious obese woman who asks for help loading her car. As he inventories her groceries, Bob considers his motivations and decides the woman did not deserve to die. His other victims – a police officer, a local family – are murdered out of perceived necessity. Only after his killing spree is over and one of his victims becomes reanimated does Bob suffer the full extent of his delusions.
Like Ravenna Gets, Cashtown Corners includes photographs that accompany the text. In Ravenna Gets, the images are sporadically inserted throughout, and their illustrative value is not always clear. In Cashtown Corners, the photos are grouped together, accompanied by captions (including some that reveal the conclusion of the plot), and presented as documentation. This is a curious choice in a story that relies at least partially on suspense for its appeal.
The audience for these fictions is surely specialized: one that appreciates both Burgess’s descriptive flights of fancy and the gore with which so many of his stories culminate.