Book review: The Complex by Brian Keene

I admit, I got The Complex almost right after the ebook came out based on only one short part of the blurb. The book has a trans character in it, and given how extremely rare it is to see this, I had to know, does Brian Keene do such a character justice? For the most part, yes, he does. I’ll get back to that in a bit.

First, I should get the plot out of the way. People go crazy, get naked, and start killing their neighbors. Aaaand we’re done. G’night, y’all!

Heh, but no seriously, that’s the whole plot in a nutshell. There’s no explanation for why everyone goes nuts, which makes sense because the characters experiencing this have no idea what’s going on. Certainly, all of them speculate on what’s happening, but no theory is given weight by the story as it plays out. In a few ways, it reminds me of King’s story Cell, which is a good thing. Cell is one of my favorite horror stories in recent years, so seeing something with a similar theme definitely works for me.

This could very well be a by the numbers story if not for the extremely well done character development. The first part of the book is something of an introduction to the various neighbors living in the apartment complex, and regular readers of Keene will spot several references to his other books.

The first chapters are where we first get to know the trans character, Stephanie, who is pre-op and still in the midst of her transition. This is a minor sticking point for me because transition seems to be the one facet of trans life that everyone is fixated on. But I also admit, the internal thought process introducing Stephanie is quite authentic and reminds me of things I’d thought back when I was transitioning.

There is a character who refers to Stephanie as a tranny, but they’re the sole exception, and the other characters tend to be surprisingly supportive. One character who Stephanie thinks doesn’t approve of her is in fact just not sure how to deal with her. Mrs. Carlucci is curious about what transition is like, but isn’t sure if asking is polite. So she says nothing at all. This makes for another authentic feeling contrast of perspectives, the way a transitioning person reads others, and what those other people are really thinking.

Among the other neighbors is Sam, a horror writer losing a battle with depression and giving some bleak views on the state of the publishing industry while he contemplates eating a bullet. Then there’s Terri, a young single mother just moving in with her young son Caleb. Her story is all about him, as her son has become her whole world. There’s Grady, a Viet Nam war vet; Shaggy and Turo, a pair of stoner criminals laying low after a botched robbery; Mendez, a serial killer whose kills may or may not be keeping the cosmos safe from otherworldly terrors; and the aforementioned Mrs Carlucci, who is a tough old lay who just wants to take care of her cats. Hell, there’s even a chapter covering the history and thoughts of one of her cats. And it totally works, making me feel afraid for him and feeling terrible for the choice he has to make to survive.

Once the story moves past the introductions and into the unfolding calamity, this could again have fallen into the trap of just describing kills and body parts and buckets of blood. But each character is given a chance to show how they are coping, or failing to cope with the violence going on around them. In this way, I was even able to feel invested in the crudest of the neighbors, and I think it’s a fine job of balancing the action with the character’s reaction and development.

Something else I thought was interesting was the use of guns in the story. In the first few chapters, several characters have them, and it seems almost like a ringing endorsement for gun ownership. Thing is, having a gun doesn’t guarantee anyone safety in this situation. People run out of ammo pretty quickly, and there’s still more crazy naked people to deal with after the guns have stopped shooting.

The ending could be taken ambiguously if you were so inclined, but I didn’t, and think it’s a standard horror ending. Which is okay. You don’t go into a horror book expecting puppies and rainbows in the end. It did remind me of a classic horror movie I really love, but I can’t say which one without spoiling this story. So I’ll just say the comparison also leaves me with a favorable impression.

So overall, I like The Complex and I’ll give it 4 stars. It’s a good horror story that manages to balance character development and investment with violence and scares, and I wish more authors would make the effort to let me get to know their characters before throwing them into the wood chipper.