House Hunter by S.T. Cartledge

This post originally appeared on I Read Odd Books

Book: House Hunter

Author: S.T. Cartledge

Type of Book:  Fiction, bizarro, action, novella

Why Do I Consider The Book Odd:  Because it appeals to my animist tendencies to see inanimate objects as living creatures.

Availability:  Published by Eraserhead Press in 2013, you can get a copy here:

Comments: We end NBAS week with S.T. Cartledge’s House Hunter.  I am torn about this book because it has so much going for it yet pings a lot of problems I have with female characters in fringe literature.  It’s almost become a cliche to me that when a badass female character is introduced and she has an unnatural hair color, I’m gonna hate her because her hair serves as her personality.  Imogen, the heroine of this book, has blue hair and is not my cup of tea, so my dayglo-hair theory is still intact.  The characterization in this book, as a whole, isn’t great but it’s also a plot-driven book.  In fact, it’s a pretty decent plot, but like so many NBAS books, it suffers from being novella-length.  This is another one that really needed space to expand and develop its plot.

The gist of House Hunter is this: Imogen is a House Hunter.  Houses, in this novel, are living creatures, some domesticated for human use, some still running wild.  Imogen is a very good house tamer and is pulled into a plot wherein a cabal of architects are trying to use a legendary house called the Jabberhouse that can destroy homes and create new ones, entire communities, that will permit the architects to take control of the houses and control all the communities and the people who live within them.  The wild houses will be stamped out and liberty will be lost.  Imogen is drawn in by a man named Clint and they engage on a quest to stop this from happening.  Clint is not who he says he is, and that plot twist really doesn’t change things as much as you might think.   There are interesting details, like cockroach people and pygmy houses and overall, this is a pretty good first effort.

This is a very action-oriented book, and when Cartledge gets into a tight action scene, you can see his strengths.  However, action-oriented books are hard for me to discuss because one has to be an excellent storyteller to pull off an action book.  Storytelling is not necessarily the same as wordsmithing and as a result storytellers tell amazing and interesting stories without engaging in the sort of writing a reader wants to quote.  Rather, the reader who loves the book is more likely to recount the plot than the beautiful writing.  Think of most Stephen King books – though King is, in my opinion, a very good writer and one of the best horror writers ever, one generally does not find oneself quoting him at length, outside of trenchant one-liners that often come up.  I explain all of this because I want it to be clear that my failure to quote much is due to this being a plot-driven novel.

This is also a book that is an homage to others authors, yet draws on influences without becoming a pastiche.  There is some clear Mark Danielewski-love in this book, with sentient houses and a character with the last name of Davinson (House of Leaves hinges on the Navidson record, this book involves the Davinson Initiative).  There are shades of Palahniuk in here, too, with a character identity revelation at the end that makes sense and is interesting but doesn’t really change much (think Invisible Monsters). There is also a video-game feel to this at times, especially during the scene wherein Imogen uses a controller of sorts to have a house duel with another house hunter.  I am not well-versed enough in video games to be able to assign scenes like this to a specific game but gaming is undeniably there.

While I don’t really like Imogen that much – blue-haired heroin who complains more than the average action heroine and isn’t particularly interesting –  I can admit that my distaste for her at times is strictly personal.  However, there are some concrete problems.  This book achieved a new editorial issue for me.  While it was peppered with editorial problems here and there, most notably with word repetition (“and and”), it had a glaring continuity error.  A character loses an arm and then throws her hands up in the air in a moment of anger.  Now she’s not throwing her severed arm up in the air – this sentence is written as though all limbs are still connected.  Very shortly after she tosses her arms into the air, another character notices her missing arm.  Sigh…  Another problem is that the novella length forced Cartledge into the dreaded “telling” rather than “showing.”  There was a lot of plot handled via conversations between characters.  I generally think telling and not showing is a garbage complaint – all science fiction requires this, especially books with this much world building, which Cartledge handles admirably.  But toward the end, it happened enough for me to notice and it became a bit tiring.

But even as I found Imogen lacking and despaired at some of the editing problems, there is a real kernel of fun in this book. The concept is unique and can easily be seen as an allegory to modern farming wherein corporations are using patents to destroy independent farmers and eliminate crops that are not genetically modified, but this connection is made without any preaching. As I mention above, the world building in this book is quite something and Cartledge creates a world the reader can immediately focus in on without feeling forced into the sort of heavy-duty otherworldliness that I find so wearying about a lot of fantasy and science fiction.  He really does give us details about the world almost effortlessly:

Imogen followed Mary around the side of the house and across a paddock of funnel web ponies.  They stopped at the gate to a paddock with a big acorn tree and at a two-story farm house behind it, standing about a foot off the ground on hundreds of matchstick legs.

Funnel web ponies may not make sense now but in the context of the story they will not trip up the reader.  It is in his worldbuilding wherein Cartledge really does show and not tell, and he’s able to create an at times sweet other world full of rich details that never verges into the outlandish.

Because this is an action bizarro novel, here’s a passage of some excellent action writing:

The old farm leapt and quivered.  Imogen’s head slammed into the porch. Sparks flew from the lightning cannon and danced across the timber deck.  She banged her fist hard on the steps.  A hoof flicked up on to the porch, brushing over her shoulder.  Imogen squeezed the trigger on the cannon and punched it into the steps.  The front legs buckled then flew up, throwing Imogen into a puddle of pigs’ blood on the sloppy ground.

The house came at her with frantic, toothy legs scraping and ripping apart the soil.  Imogen switched the cannon to scorch and fired at the front of the house.  She held her arm up in the general direction of the centipede legs and held her fire until she could no longer feel the feet clawing at the blood-soaked ground.

This is some pretty decent action writing, I think.  Action writing does best when it is simple, without a lot of flourishes.  When a character is wrestling with a house with centipede legs and brings a cannon into play, we don’t need a whole lot of extraneous details.  And to be perfectly frank, I was never one for overly descriptive novels.  I love the mystery novelist Ruth Rendell but tune out whenever she goes into great detail with plants and architecture and the arrangements of high streets.  I am partial to writing that is less baroque and Cartledge appeals to me on that level.

But that is not to say that this book is wholly without some pretty writing.  This scene comes from when Clint and Imogen are in a labyrinth and realize it is alive and is moving.

They came out of one passage into a wide room filled with plants and trees that flickered with light instead of fruit and flowers and leaves, and filled the room with the scent of peaches and roses and eucalyptus.  The plants grew from little islands of red soil that were surrounded by a black liquid sea. Along the walls, eyes watched them.  Imogen went out into the sea, knee deep.  Ellis followed.  In the centre of the room, a tree spiraled like a staircase, disappearing into a hole in the roof.

Overall, there was enough good in this book to distract me from what I didn’t like.  There was little in the way of character development, Imogen’s got the dreaded blue hair that often serves as a place marker for personality, and there were editing issues that were really distracting.  But the world-building, the action sequences and the plot were spot-on.  I recommend this book and hope that if you read it you come back and tell me what you think of it.  But as I have mentioned before, the New Bizarro Author Series writers have a limited window in which to sell enough books to be offered a writing contract.  If this book sounds interesting to you, then get a copy sooner rather than later.

Having reached the end of my NBAS week,  you guys have until 6:00 P.M. PST to leave comments in order to enter my giveaway.  I am giving away a copy of each book I discuss this week OR I am giving away an Amazon gift card in the amount that the paper versions of these books would cost.  All you have to do to enter the drawing is to leave me a comment in each of this week’s entries.  One comment on each discussion is an entry into the drawing.  Leave a comment all five days and you will have five entries into the drawing.  Only one comment per day counts as an entry but don’t let that prevent you from engaging in conversation about the books.  For all the details of this contest, visit this entry.

I will announce the winner of the contest in a separate entry and will contact the winner via e-mail.    Thanks for all the support for this endeavor and happy reading to you all.

13 thoughts on “House Hunter by S.T. Cartledge

  1. Whew! You made it through a week of Bizarro talk! Has it altered your reality yet? Like, do you see things in your peripheral vision that are still there when you turn to look at them? That happens to me when I’ve read too many Bizarro’s in a row.

    House Hunter is the only one of the six I haven’t read yet, although I plan to change that before they tally up the sales for each writer at Bizarrocon in November. I hope all six of them go on to prosper and find an audience, whether it’s under the banner of Eraserhead Press or something else!

    1. HA! You assume I wasn’t seeing things in my peripheral vision before I began this strange, horrible journey. I too hope all these authors manage to find a great audience!

    1. It was a good read, kind of like a bizarro version of an airport novel. It was pretty entertaining.

  2. I like the idea of this because I tend to think houses have personality and it makes strange sense to think some are more domesticated than others. Some houses seem downright predatory and others are like fat and lazy housecats.

  3. I have to admit to a failure of imagination in that I can’t really picture how the “wild houses” thing works. The barn, yes, since I’m picturing the action taking place over an expanse of farmland, but how are there houses running wild in dense urban areas? Or do houses only run wild in rural areas? Very odd.

    Also, a question for you or anyone else who is more familiar with bizarro lit and small presses in general. Is the sloppy writing done on purpose to some extent? As an aesthetic choice? A while back I read Wrath James White’s “Scabs,” and that book was so riddled with typos, spelling errors, and grammatical errors that it was clear that White didn’t proofread his own work. But that made me wonder, since I know White’s a serious dude, if it’s really just that he either doesn’t give a shit, or leaves the mistakes in on purpose to lend his writing more immediacy and intensity, like an artist who deliberately paints rough brush strokes.

    I’m not being facetious — I can see a certain validity in the notion of deliberately not polishing your writing, as a kind of shibbolleth of low-fi fringe outsider-ness, setting your work apart from slick mainstream literature. I think it still sucks and is annoying, but I can at least respect that over the “sorry, can’t afford to hire someone to do basic proofreading and can’t be bothered to do it myself” defense.

    1. The houses have little centipede legs that they run around with. Some houses are tame and some are given birth to in captivity, I think. Some are wild and need to be tamed. Think horses or cattle that you live in.

      I do not think the shoddy editing is part of an outsider credo because amongst the true outsiders I have encountered in my time in the lit trenches, they care about The Word. Some may lack the education, some may have organic issues that prevent them from writing in a traditional manner, but they all care on some level about the presentation of their ideas. Indie credo means deviating from a norm in terms of content and distribution, but I genuinely cannot see how any indie or outsider movement will have any meaning if it requires making a product that cannot be enjoyed without distraction.

      Think of black metal. It may seem like noise to those unaccustomed to it but it’s actually far more symphonic than most mainstream music. It harks back to Beethoven more than Black Sabbath. There is a structure to it as it deviates from the norm. It takes the basics of music construction and uses them to a different advantage.

      The same applies to fringe literature. There is an essential structure that has to be used in order to prevent the reader from being so alienated from the final product that they stop reading and stop absorbing the content. For every writer who engaged in fringe or unexpected uses of grammar, there was something more at work than, “My message is so awesome and deep that I don’t have to obey grammar.” Danielewski, ee cummings in his poetry – there was a greater reason behind the rejection of grammatical and story-telling norms than just setting themselves aside from a norm. The deviation was the purpose. The deviation defined the pieces.

      What does the deviation from editorial norms do for bizarro? The very fact that Eraserhead is selling their wares means that they are participating in the traditional book market. That means that they are less outsiders than they are outliers. They may not be mainstream but they are slick -they have a business model and they are doing their best to make a profit for themselves and their writers. The bad editing is not a part of a credo but rather bad part of a business plan that if left unaddressed will marginalize them amongst even readers who want the extremity of what they bring to the table.

      So I can’t cut them any slack. I don’t think this is a deliberate part of a greater credo. I think it is poor editing of extreme materials and nothing more.

  4. Edward,

    I think they’re just so exhausted after pulling that kind of feverish material out of their psyches and their souls, that to some degree, they just want to divorce themselves from it and move on to something else. Read ‘His Pain’ by Wrath James White. It’s seriously his most intense piece, and I don’t remember any glaring typos in it.

    1. Regarding “His Pain,” initially I was like, WTF? But I was confusing it with his story “No Pain” from Scabs, which does have a multitude of issues. I think you make a good point. Scabs has some incredibly searing, emotionally intense material in it. Even if I could bring myself to attempt something like that, and managed to crawl my way through it, I certainly wouldn’t be eager to go back and revisit it, and it’d be difficult as well to go over it with a detached eye. I’d want to just slough it off and move on.

      That said, I’m more sympathetic to that perspective if we’re talking about someone like White, who’s pretty earnest and really lays his guts out on the page. Not so much for Edward Lee’s goofball sex/gore/effluvia wallows. But maybe that’s why it’s so enraging when his stories are that way, while White is just frustrating. I accept that I may be in a minority of the audience for these genres, but when I hit those basic grammar/spelling mistakes, it stops me cold and throws me out of the story. Done enough times, I’m no longer resonating with the material at all. If they’re trying to engage the reader and draw them into the story and their ideas, it’s counterproductive because it’s actually distancing.

    2. It’s possible they want to just move on but that’s why copy editors exist. White is excellent when he is on his game, one of the best extreme horror writers ever. When he is off he is a complete mess. Again, I have had people tell me that after reading one of his “off” stories they won’t pay money for his work again. And that sucks because ultimately I think White cares deeply about the content of his stories and he is done no favors when his work is presented to readers in a sloppy manner. He’s better than that and he deserves better than that.

  5. Edward,

    I recently read a book called Mad by Jonathan Bowden that intentionally kept several punctuation mistakes in the final text. I reviewed it here.

    House Hunter sounds like an interesting example of the “pulp” side of the Bizarro movement.

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