Written by: Matthew J. Barbour
Along with Robert Kirkman, Max Brooks, and others, Brian Keene is often credited with reinventing and revitalizing zombie horror in pop culture. Some have even hailed Keene as the next Stephen King. While such claims are debatable, Keene’s impact on the horror genre certainly is not. In the last decade, Keene has released over a dozen full length novels, making him among the most prolific writers in horror today.
Urban Gothic is not a zombie tale. It focuses on a group of cannibalistic mutants living in the inner city projects of the Philadelphia/Camden area. In Urban Gothic, a clique of suburban teenagers, after attending a rap concert, are on a quest for weed when their car breaks down in the ghetto. After an unnecessary confrontation with the local African American population, the white teens flee into an abandoned house where a great variety of terrors await them. Now, it is up to the locals to enter the house and save them.
The mutants who dwell inside come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Each has its own unique way of killing, primarily to keep the writing fresh and entertaining. Keene is no stranger to gore. Some of the death sequences written in Urban Gothic, including the face munch and bleeding scenes, are excellent. Keene’s writing is both beautiful and revolting at the same time, while remaining concise and accessible.
The story is homage to the splatterpunk and southern gothic writings of the 1980s (and 90s). In fact, the tale is in many ways a knock-off of the early stories of Jack Ketchum and Joe Lansdale. The term knock-off sometimes has negative connotations. However, here it is very clear and even deliberate that the author is intentionally mimicking these earlier writers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as both Ketchum and Lansdale have written some truly brilliant stories. Imitation is, after all, the sincerest form of flattery and Keene brings his own distinct narrative to bear on the splatterpunk and southern gothic subgenres.
There is also another subgenre and author serving as inspiration here: cosmic horror and H. P. Lovecraft. Lovecraft’s influence is much more subtle and nuanced but no less pervasive. This is not unexpected. Many of Keene’s books contain elements of cosmic horror. Urban Gothic could almost be viewed as a combination of Jack Ketchum’s Off Season and H. P. Lovecraft’s Shadows over Innsmouth.
Because Urban Gothic is so derivative of other works, it is hard to review without openly comparing it to other books. The novel is good, but not great. Keene reminds us of horror literature classics. Time will tell if Keene’s own work will standup to these earlier stories, but it is clear that he understands the horror genre and has a broad range of stories to tell.