If the western is the most conservative of genres, then horror is surely the most reactionary. Both genres leave themselves open for regular deconstruction, but for some reason the western has gained acceptance as a serious genre, while horror still struggles. On the one hand, it is hard to see why: both genres have their critically respected authors who sell a lot of books (Cormac McCarthy, Stephen King) and both genres have thousands of paperback examples of dross that is easily available in all chain outlets – so why is the western seen as classic, while horror is seen as disreputable, an embarrassment? But on the other hand, it is very easy to see why. Horror is not a respected genre when viewing it as the embodiment of reactionary tendencies within human nature. These are tendencies that are in some ways shameful – a fear of sex, so sexuality is made horrific; a fear of violence and the unknown, so violence becomes both a threat and an object of fetishization. It is somehow less embarrassing to discuss the embodiment of conservative values in the traditional western or the deconstruction of those values in the atypical western, than it is to discuss the straight-up enjoyment of things that no supposedly healthy person should be considering for too long. Themes such as "Sex As A Threatening Disease" or "Violence As A Passion Akin To Sex"... are perhaps rather awkward to discuss for the person who has a vested interest in not appearing to be rather creepy.
Bentley Little is that rare example of the horror writer who doesn’t exist within the typical fear-of-sex, fear-of-violence continuum of most within the genre; his fears do not appear to be primarily based around the potential of violence visited upon the traditional family unit or around fear of sex/fear of the body. Although those threats are often present, they don't feel like the actual point of his tales; instead, Little prefers his horror to explore the discomfort of all the institutions that surround and support us.
Little established himself as the premier expert of institutional deconstruction with The Store. This is a smart and fast-paced novel, and its attack on corporatization is so obvious yet so smoothly encapsulated within traditional horror tropes that the genuinely sharp critique - the entire reason for this novel's existence - may pass almost unnoticed by the frequent and possibly jaded horror reader. But his critical thoughts on consumer culture are clear: the protagonist hates it and so does the author.
As usual, his writing is straightforward, almost transparent. The plot moves quickly but inexorably, the characters are simply depicted and all the more real for it. The central idea of dehumanization, the kind that is a frequent by-product of consumerism, blazes off the page, vivid and furious. I don’t usually expect that kind of lucid renunciation of capitalism from this most reactionary of genres.
University posits a reality where universities are actually sentient beings, with each student and staff member acting as just one cell of a greater organism. Unfortunately for the novel's cast, the particular organism that they're a part of is deeply psychotic. The idea is an interesting one and creates many democratic opportunities for both horror and irony, as the mindlessly reactionary, the complacently liberal, the tediously conformist, and the superficially rebellious are all enjoyably skewered throughout the novel.
Characterizations are shallow but sympathetic and the narrative is built on a sometimes too-wide canvas. As always with the author, sex - whether as an act of love, lust, or horror - is presented in such a matter-of-fact way (far removed from the gloating, juvenile lasciviousness of Edward Lee or Richard Laymon), that the act itself carries about as much mystery and complexity as eating or sleeping. It is a surprising and refreshing perspective. Little is a surprising and refreshing author.
Go get 'em, Bentley. Take down the establishment, one institution at a time!