What is this?
I know about teen novels with alternate worlds. Usually those worlds are carefully mapped out, explained, lovingly explored by the author. And I know what is a book with a teenage protagonist who endures a terrible, traumatic experience. Although usually those are girls. It can be rough these days to be a girl in a YA non-fantasy novel. You might get buried alive, or raped, or raped a lot, or accidentally kill your parents, or be in a coma or die, and you will almost certainly be kidnapped. I even know horror. I have read a lot of horror, especially when I was a very young person, and very unsure about things.
So I think The Marbury Lens is horror. But it is non-cheap, un-easy horror.
Really good horror generally functions as metaphor, in addition to scaring you til your flesh creeps on your bones. The haunted house stands in for the disordered mind, or the family with secrets. Ghosts represent trauma not yet assimilated. The killer clown symbolizes cultural unease - yeah but actually the killer clown doesn't need a deeper layer of meaning. Killer clowns are just extraordinarily messed up.
So in this book... jeez can you tell I'm procrastinating about committing to saying something about this book? I feel a bit underqualified here. This is a harsh damn book. There are flesh-eating beetles and dismembered corpses (emphasis on "member") in a perilous world called Marbury. There's a boy who is kidnapped by a murdering rapist in Ventura County, California. But the connection - between Marbury's dessicated postapocalyptic desert and our own - is through the boy. The boy is Jack, of course his name is Jack - and he goes to Marbury, acts and lives in Marbury, only after the psychic apocalypse of his kidnapping and torture.
I don't want to stretch too far here. There are demons in Marbury - one of them is his best friend. Are these the demons in Jack's head, left there by his kidnapper? Is Jack really still a captive, hallucinating his experiences in Marbury and in our world as a result of the sedatives injected into him by his kidnapper? Or did he die? There are ghosts in Marbury too, helpful but also needy. Is the ghost Jack's better nature? The specter of his absent father?
But the book fairly forces speculation of this nature. Regardless of how awful, how filthy and dangerous and punishing Marbury is, Jack feels a physical need to return there. It's all he thinks about, even after meeting and falling in love with a sweet girl who loves him back. The parallel to addiction is so obvious, his best friend even brings it up. But the reader may then think about the addictive nature of self-loathing - the kind of self-loathing that victims of violence often fall prey to.
I read this book in two days. I was fascinated and enthralled, in the sick way that I associate with reading horror, but also because it's a deep damn read and I could not figure out what was cause and what was effect. I never did, even at the end. Some things, many things, are left unresolved. Either I need to think about them more, or they were, in fact, beside the point.
I found myself thinking of Going Bovine by Libba Bray, and Jacob's Ladder, that movie with Tim Robbins as a hallucinating Vietnam war veteran. When people review horror, there's always a Stephen King comparison. Well, let me tell you. Stephen King is just beginning to write with this kind of psychological insight. I told a friend, "I seriously don't know what to make of this thing. It's like Kafka, but more scenic."
So there you go. Like Kafka, but more scenic. That's just great.