‘Hurt People’, Fractured Book

There are sinister elements at work in Cote Smith's debut novel that mark it as an honest horror story of the best kind. If only they didn't also compromise it so fundamentally.

Hurt People, Cote Smith’s debut novel, does much with the idea that there’s nothing so terrifying as growing up. That no horror movie monster, Saturday morning cartoon villain or sensationalized serial killer could ever be so terrifying to a child as the psychological complexities, capricious emotions, moral ambiguities, senseless interpersonal cruelties and callous realities that characterize adult life. “A monster I could imagine, I could hold in my brain and toy with. A real-life human being, I could never understand. Not fully… A monster… would eat you, spit out your bones, but the only feeling it would ever force to face was fear,” the book’s unnamed narration explains after recalling his father’s warning that it’s “people you have to watch out for”. Although it’s a childish articulation of one of the most frightening gaps in our lives, it’s all too fitting, given that the narrator himself is a child trying desperately to make sense of a world that no one will help him to understand.

His parents, divorced, are largely absent from his and his older brother’s lives. Their mother works days as a cashier at a golf course and spends her evenings passed out on the couch or staying over with her new boyfriend and ex-convict ,Rick. Their police-officer father, whom they see only on the weekends, is so split between pursuing his promotion, pressures at the office to catch an escaped convict, and a series of romantic flings, that the most he does for the boys is plop them down in front of the television with a few schlocky horror movies before heading to the bar. Cote has an excellent eye for this detail; titles like “Lieutenant Lazarus” and plot synopses along the lines of “a southern black vampire… enlists with a heavy heart to fight the north” are hilarious and accurate send-ups to the kind of pap that once graced the shelves of video rental stores.

It’s not that their father’s or mother’s affections are false. They are simply cheap and easily distracted, guided more by feeling than by logic. When their father feels a distance growing between his boys and himself he sees no problem assigning his police unit an impromptu shooting drill and taking along his sons to impress them. Or, when that fails, bringing them along on his rounds to prove himself some kind of action hero.

Their mother seems to believe that they’ll be fine so long as she loves them: she seems genuinely confused when she returns home after days of shacking up with Rick to find her sons furious with her and wasting away, having long ago eaten through the meager rations of bread and powdered milk she left them with. As if by mere dint of her affection they should be both physically and mentally healthy.

Both offer token advice — their mother through simple platitudes such as “hurt people hurt people”, their father by dismissing the horror movies he regularly shows them — but are themselves too self-absorbed with their own pain to pay real attention to the growing anger of their oldest son or the chilling effect this has on the younger brother. It’s little accident the father is regularly described as picking the boys up “like they’re nothing” or the way the mother is described as brushing them off “like flies”.

The closest person the brothers have to a consistent parental figure is Rick, their mother’s new boyfriend, but his draconian treatment of the boys clearly has less to do with “teaching them right from wrong” than with venting his own impotent rage at his long absent, possibly abusive family. Their mother’s insistence that Rick “wouldn’t hurt (the children) for no good reason… he’s got a good heart” cannot justify a later scene where he beats the boys bloody for stealing his custom golf cart, or his habit of referring to them as “the retards”.

Left to raise themselves, the brothers spend their summer watching cartoons, discussing the escape of a noted convict the press has dubbed “The Stranger”, and sneaking past their chimney-like smoking neighbor for daily ventures to the pool. “All we wanted was the pool”, our narrator says as the story opens, and it’s clear that for he and the older brother he admires so much the pool represents freedom, fluidity, an escape to a world at once both more exciting than their own and less confusing. It’s a world where all that matters is physical action, movement, and in which the story the boys tell themselves about the world seem as fluid as the water they swim through.

It’s also a world absent of adults save for the puckish Chris, a strange young man as apt to dispense wisdom about growing up in the form of whimsical stories as he is to dispense wisdom about the art of diving. The older brother is immediately enamored of him and the implicit promise of induction into the adult world their growing mentorship suggests; the narrator, however, is immediately distrustful, not wishing to betray his brother but subtly aware that there is something off about this figure. Something he can’t describe but realizes at a deeper level.

The reader, of course, knows exactly what it is. There’s no doubt at all that Chris is a child-predator. It’s not apparent with the language he uses, nor with the casual physical intimacy he forces on the older brother, but the narrator’s ignorance, yet wariness, lends Chris’ presence in their lives a layer more disturbing. More threatening.

Being a child, his language is limited and so, too, is his understanding of the world. Consequently, so is the style of the novel, which is written from this limited perspective. In many ways this is a boon. Hurt People would never be half so horrifying if it wasn’t written in a syntax that is essentially innocent and unaware and so clashing sharply with the world around it. The narrator seems drawn by some fluke of fate to bear hidden witness to scenes of adult violence, carnality, and weakness that might seem commonplace to an adult but which take on unsettling new dimension when parsed by a child.

Indeed, when the narrator spies his father clutching himself in a moment of angst or his mother coupling with Rick on the family couch, the limited narrative frame lends these moments an uncanny horror. Especially shocking are those moments of real and senseless cruelty. When the boys watch a snuff film the escaped convict “The Stranger” left behind and which their father collected as evidence, it’s seen as something otherworldly. It feels honestly invasive, like some kind of existential pathogen. When it resurfaces throughout the novel it’s as a nightmare the narrator can never fully articulate. It’s a real life horror movie that upends everything he thought he knew of good and evil.

There’s a real sense of violation, the violation of an entire reality, of everything sacred and known, when the narrator witnesses Chris’ attempts to rape his older brother. The “dark shade” of Chris pinning the brother to the wall “like (he) was under arrest”, the “two pale sticks” of the brother’s legs, the “loud rip of the trunk’s Velcro” the fragmentation of these images and sounds invests them with an alien element far more horrifying than any straightforward description of sexual assault might. The obscure and shadowed angle through which he views these events — always through a gap in the door or from around some obscure corner — becomes the obscure angle through which we perceive them, investing our understanding of the world with the same disorientation the narrator himself feels.

The child tries to manage this, but the only thing he can do to make sense of a life nobody will guide him through is to shoehorn it into convenient stories. So the woods become, predictably, a sight of nightmarish foreboding he avoids at all cost; abandoned warehouses and tornado devastated streets become the sets of horror movies; Chris, whom he fears for reasons he cannot articulate, conveniently becomes the same Stranger his father is chasing; the horde of unfamiliar party goers milling around the apartment’s living room become a horde of zombies; a tree standing at the middle of an abandoned silo becomes a monolithic symbol of evil, and in response the narrator imagines himself variously as a badass P.I., a disillusioned cop or some other outsider figure who knows the score but plays his cards close to his chest.

It’s these self-depictions which are most interesting, because, in these moments, we see a picture of the narrator that speaks to something darker in his make-up. When he witnesses his father collapse into the fetal position, the boy can only think that he is “very lucky”. It’s as though he has “caught the world doing something it didn’t want (him) to see.” The knowledge that he alone is privy to something he should never see, something adult — a late night argument between his parents, his mother’s naked breasts — fills him with a thrill he can barely describe. If it’s as Chris teaches him, “secrets have the potential to hurt people”, then it’s the narrator, with his tendency to discover everyone else’s others secrets, who has the most potential to hurt people; it’s the narrator, in all his childish caprice, who has the most power in the novel.

This is a subtly unnerving element that undergirds the story with a different kind of menace than one might have expected. Though the older brother’s fantasies are more immediately shocking because of their violence (he chooses to explain the cruelties of the world away by staging elaborate ugly stories of revenge and torture between his G.I. Joes, in which the villain wins because, as he explains it, “you never see that [on the TV show]”) and though the younger brother loves to fancy himself the hero of his stories, there’s a pathological element to the latter’s character missing from the former’s. There’s a sly suggestion that the real danger is not in what kind of broken man the older brother might become after Chris horrifically inducts him into adulthood, but in what the narrator might grow up to become if left without proper guidance.

Like most of the interesting notes in Hurt People, though, this is an element only suggested and never deeply explored. The novel is busy, and it’s ambitious, but that ambition leads to a clutter of literary devices and tropes and symbols and characters that may be deliberately chosen, but which also often feel clumsily chosen. The book is glutted with motifs. Everything seems symbolically significant. The younger brother is constantly talking about the sound of water and his own dream of drowning, storm imagery is commonly used to describe characters when they’re in foul moods, actual storms are used or to parallel real life catastrophe, fairytale imagery (especially of the dark woods) abounds, the characters live in the shadow of four major prisons that seem to represent their own imprisonment as much as that of the convicts, the characters do not just understand life through stories but communicate through them and regularly and debate their importance.

Some of these elements, such as the storms, seem cliché. If the convenient timing of a tornado slamming into town at just the moment Chris is kidnapped can be explained by geography — the story is set in Leavenworth, Kansas, after all — it cannot be explained away by any appeal to originality or power. Others, such as the prisons that surround the city, are disappointing because the potential they’re so rife with is undeveloped. Every major adult in the story has either worked in, been in or been married to somebody associated with the prisons: they seem designed to hold convicts and civilians both. The narrator’s mother herself even expresses a sense that this is why she’s never been able to move beyond Leavenworth.

The problem is that such symbols have less meaning to a child whose idea of “freedom” is as simple a concept as traipsing down to the pool without parental supervision. A moment where the narrator views his punishment as akin to his mother’s own sense of being stuck is clearly meant to examine this, but it’s a case where the juxtaposition of childish naivety and the painful adult reality actually distracts from rather than highlights just how stark this idea is.

So while the novel draws its emotional and atmospheric power powerful and effective from the limitations it imposes on the narrative, these same inherent limitations also sabotage the story. Because we never see the other characters from any perspective but the narrator’s, they feel one-dimensional no matter how many times they reveal some previously hidden aspect of themselves. The mother’s attempts to justify Rick’s behavior may not demand to be taken seriously, but a passage where Rick picks her and the narrator up after a spat of engine failure certainly does. The moments of sweetness he shows her, the vulnerability he demonstrates to her son, the fact that he’s finally willing to discuss, if guardedly, some of his own philosophy: it all reads like an attempt by the author to add a sympathetic dimension to a character who has until now been irredeemably cruel.

Only we never see this element of Rick again. Within 50 pages he has very nearly hospitalized one brother and comes seconds from brutally beating the other. His actions are understandable, given his history, but they make the earlier, sympathetic characterization seem like a desperate attempt to justify the man rather than an honest exploration of his character. In this later light that earlier scene begins to feel less like an honest exploration of a multifaceted individual than a rushed attempt to create failed complexity.

Other characters are similarly fated. Chris never feels like a fully realized person — the kind of complex evil the story is warning about — but instead the kind of caricature a child might see while watching any of the “Stranger Danger” videos so prevalent in classrooms in the ’90s. It does nothing to explain how he came to be or who he really is, but only paints him as if he was born a pedophile. He is, in effect, the kind of horror movie villain the story suggests does not exist. Lip service is given to his back story but if anything it works against him. All those tantalizing glimpses of something darker lurking in the main character’s psyche never amount to anything. All those suggestions of the father’s gnawing doubts remain forever under the surface. In a novel devoted to exploring how psychologies grow out of environment these kinds of oversights feel like missed opportunities of the worst kind.

The result is a book that feels deeply split. It’s paradoxically overstuffed and empty. There are plenty of characters, but beyond the brothers so many are only partially realized and so absent that the story begins to feel like it’s set in a ghost town. It’s both under and over written. The prose carries on for pages and pages and though the focus on slowly accreting details and growing tension and the simplistic nature of the prose lend the story an oppressively growing atmosphere that’s difficult to forget, the experience can feel a slog from page to page or even at times from sentence to sentence. Smith has clearly made these choices for deliberate reasons but the same limitations that lend the novel so much of its power and interest also result very naturally in a bevy of problems that exist in distracting tension with everything worthy in the novel.

None of this is to suggest that Hurt People is a novel so flawed that it’s unreadable or that its particular voice is unworthy. Far from it. In many ways it’s one of the most honest horror stories I’ve read in ages, always the more effective because of its tendency to grounds its horrors in the mundane. It also features a narrative voice of striking originality, that rare view from a child that feels neither precious nor condescending nor idealized. There’s something truly subversive about combining these elements to transform the story of a boy coming to age during summer vacation into a novel so often unsettling. If only the tensions underlying the novel were not so fundamental that they become impossible to ignore, Hurt People would represent a high water mark in horror for the year. As is, it’s only a very promising debut.

RATING 6 / 10