November 15, 2018
Slender Man. By Mythology Entertainment. Harper Voyager. $15.99.
You might think that the Slender Man meme had crested and washed away by now. The horrific case involving two 12-year-old Wisconsin girls stabbing a third has wound through the courts and even, inevitably, found its way into a documentary film, Beware the Slenderman (using the alternative one-word version of the fictional character’s name). And a very poorly received horror film was made by Sony Pictures and Screen Gems – along with several independent films, a video game, and all the usual detritus of contemporary entertainment.
So is that it? No such luck. Mythology Entertainment, which was involved in the Sony/Screen Gems film, now offers a novel called Slender Man without authorial attribution. That is probably not intended to make things spooky but to relieve any individual human being of the need to take credit or blame for the book. In fact, Slender Man reads like a multi-author project, akin to many screenplays, with no consistent voice and with lapses of continuity and pacing (and language: there are several British spellings of common words, although this could just indicate that one contributor is from England, or Canada, or Australia).
Slender Man, the book, is not really bad, but it is so obvious that it will scarcely appeal to horror aficionados; whether it will attract people fascinated by the Slender Man character, for whatever reason, is another matter. As in so many novels that try to be with-it and up-to-date, this one features a mixture of narratives (helping justify, or at least explain, its mixture of styles). Teenage central character Matt Barker, one of the wealthy students at the snooty Riley School, which Matt describes as “a judgemental [sic] cesspit,” keeps a diary and has his cellphone set to record automatically on many, many occasions in the wee hours of the morning; the psychiatrist he is seeing because he has nightmares sends Matt’s parents old-fashioned snail-mail letters, making it possible for Matt to intercept communication; various students chat on social media (of course); there is a Reddit group in which Slender Man is discussed; there are transcripts of interviews of students with detectives investigating, among other things, the mysterious disappearance of one of Matt’s classmates, Lauren Bailey; school officials issue various administrative notices; a nosy reporter for a local newspaper keeps writing spectacularly boring articles; and on and on it goes.
The use of various sources of information does nothing to mitigate the sloppiness with which the story is told. Some of the many typos are just funny: “I couldn’t keep my mouth close any longer.” And most of the efforts to make things seem horrific are little better, as in an attempt to pull in something vaguely Lovecraftian (Slender Man was in fact created with some thought to H.P. Lovecraft’s works): “I sort of felt this enormous thing, like I was seeing a fraction of something so huge that my mind couldn’t really process it, like I was looking up through a keyhole and he was the only thing I could see, was the only thing in the universe, was all there was.” Like, uh-huh.
The basic plot will be quite obvious to anyone who looks at the dates meticulously included with the various narrative segments. The cops are talking to kids in late April, but dates relating to the actual events, including the crucial narrative portions from Matt, are in March. Aha! Something happened to Matt! That is quite apparent even though most of the narrative concerns the disappearance of Lauren, who is Matt’s friend but not his girlfriend and who has this thing about horrific stuff for absolutely no reason and who shares that interest with Matt but doesn’t actually let people know the two of them are friends and neither does he because, well, who needs motivation or character-building anyway?
There are some unspoken rules in horror potboilers, one of which is that central characters are supposed to be smart but invariably do incredibly stupid things. In Slender Man, for example, there is a scene in which birds hit the glass outside Matt’s family’s super-high-class apartment and Matt’s father cleans up the mess matter-of-factly. Later, the same thing happens again, with even more birds and a bigger mess, in the middle of the night, and the birds’ blood makes the shape of a horrific character, so Matt wakes his father up to show him and get help. Of course not!! That would make sense!! Matt decides that no one would believe this has happened and maybe it is all imaginary anyway, so he carefully and meticulously destroys all the evidence that might show Slender Man to be real, doing the cleanup of the birds himself and letting his parents sleep. Brilliant guy, that Matt.
As things go, though, Matt is smarter than anyone else in the book: all the other characters have no personality at all, to the point that calling them cardboard would be giving them too much depth – they are tissue paper, maybe. The whole story arc, of an overly sensitive and allegedly smart young person being pulled more and more deeply into eldritch horrors (“eldritch horrors” is a Lovecraftian phrase, not one in this novel), is formulaic in the extreme and unconvincing to an extreme degree.
So who will pay attention to Slender Man, the novel? It is hard to say. There are some mild chills here and there, and horror fans looking for a tie-in to a recently created fictional character – one associated with some awful real-world events – may want to read the book. Fans of the film in which Mythology Entertainment was involved may want to look at it, too, although it does not claim to be a novelization of the movie. Oddly enough, it may be in the academic sphere that the book gets some traction, among scholars interested in Internet memes and the interaction, for good or ill, of the make-believe online world with the real one. Using this book for academic purposes is almost a scarier thought than anything in the book itself.