The Association by Bentley Little (2001): There’s a great idea here, handled perhaps too much in the mode of occasionally clumsy social satire rather than straightforward horror. Barry, a horror writer, and his accountant wife Maureen move into what seems to be an idyllic gated community, complete with a Community Association, in Utah. But the rules for residents get stricter and stricter. People start dying mysteriously. And how does the Association always know when someone’s violated its phonebook of rules?
One of the points of the novel is that ‘groupthink’ can cause even very good people to ignore the problems around them, to become passive. The gated community causes both Barry and Maureen to make bad decisions, and even bad indecisions, but this passivity in the face of an escalating threat becomes tiring after a couple of hundred pages. One one finds out that one’s community association is mutilating and even killing troublesome residents, how long is one still going to fret about whether or not the association is going to play fair with oneself, or obey its own rules?
As social satire or even simply commentary on how good people can let bad things happen, the novel works, but the passivity and gormlessness of Barry and Maureen becomes wearisome as the danger to them and their friends escalates into all-out bloodshed, bloodshed they put up with because they’re worried about how running away from their house (and their mortgage) would affect their credit rating. See what I mean about social satire?
Little’s really in the territory of the late, great Thomas Disch and his four satiric horror novels of the 1980’s and 1990’s here, but the sharpness of Disch’s wit and the efficient poeticism of Disch’s prose allowed him to be scathingly funny and scary simultaneously. Little isn’t a nuanced enough writer to pull off such a dual feat successfully.
The ending, when it comes, comes with a rush, and Little does a nice job of logicking out just how Barry can win against the sinister Board of the Association, though here, as in The Return, Little seems to be a little too enamoured of electricity as the great ward against evil. Tightened up and focused on either horror or more pointed social observation, this book could be terrific — as is, the dragginess of the middle section caused me to skip entire pages of placeholder dialogue and description, which is what I call pages where we find out what everyone’s eating and how they feel about it. Recommended with reservations.