Bryan Alexander's Reviews > Boneland

Boneland by Jeffrey Thomas
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really liked it
bookshelves: alternate-history, gothic, new-weird, weirdness

I read this book as part of my October 2015 quest to devour as many fine 21st-centuy Gothic horror novels as I can cram in. I haven't read any Jeffrey Thomas novels before, although I have enjoyed some Punktown short stories and admired his comments on an August 2015 horror convention panel.

Boneland is a curious blend of horror, fantasy, and alternate history. All three have a source in the arrival of strange beings on Earth during the late 19th century. Actually, there were two types of beings. First appeared the Guests, entities from far away in space, who could only manifest by meddling with human minds, leading to madness, violence, and possibly the first World War. After this, ah, embarrassment, the Guests sent an insect ecosystem, and this is where Boneland really shines.

You see, Thomas has these alien insects stand in for the 20th-century industrial era. The bugs serve as cameras, radios, telephones, televisions, advanced building materials, early computers (Kindle location 300), ocean liners (but not airplanes, 1628), and more. Their ecosystem evolves in parallel with the course of what we think of as technological innovation. Thomas has a great deal of fun (I imagine) with developing different insects for each need, giving us clever new forms. New human jobs and mutations appear, with persons paired with specialized bugs: Assassins who feed murderous imagery to their riders, Mediums ridden by brain bugs (example: 695). The titular Boneland is Hollywood, a nice grim joke on several levels (1183). I suspect the author was inspired by David Cronenberg's deliriously inventive film eXistenz (1999; strongly recommended), which imagines a biologically based, rather than silicon-based, digital technology.

I mention Cronenberg here as well because Boneland's technology is is also very disturbing. John Board, our protagonist/point of view character seems to be one of the few Americans in this alt.history who are, well, bugged by the bugs. He begins as a photographer, and the shutterbug version is even more intimate than the tech we know from our timeline (check Kindle location 176 for a sample). Our "hero" (because he isn't, really) sees his career implode, then restart on grim terms, and we follow him through death. Boneland is, in a sense, a biographical novel.

And that's what cost me a single star. Board is, well, fairly flat as a character. He lives in a kind of emotional suspension and worldly disengagement that sheds light on the world, but without revealing many of his depths. His main love interest, Mary/Louise Brooks, isn't that realized, and their relationship is pretty basic.

Board's uneasiness is a good proxy for the reader's. As the 20th century proceeds people tell us that the Guests are getting more humane and less scary, but culture seems to degrade, with dehumanization, growing warfare, and rape-themed reality tv (1758)

More on the world: Boneland plays with names. Most humans have object names, like Detective Shoe (242), Pete Spoon and Ronny Shingle (465), Henry Plough (675), Warden File (684), and so on. Conversely, objects have biological names, as Board lives on Sacrum Street (150) in the big Illinois city of Coccyx, formerly Chicago (1590). There are some fun altered instances of our world, like Taxi Driver appearing thusly:
This [poster], from 1941, was for [Howard] Hawks' Cab Driver, about a lonely and alienated WWIV vet who takes to driving a taxi at night. Though it ended with an extremely violent shootout, the film was unusually artistic rather than exploitative...
Filming the cab as it coasted shark-like through hellish mists of steam on back lot city streets had been a rewarding challenge for him.(1879)

The book contains a short story, "Close Enough", which lives in the same buggy, Guested universe. I'll leave it off this review since I'm focusing solely on novels.

Overall, Boneland is a fascinating, engaging read. The world is creative and worth reflection. I'm not sure it's really horror per se. Yes, there are scenes of violence, but they don't appear to elicit dread. Their disgust is more political, with a dose of psychosexual unease. I recommend the book for anyone interested in contemporary horror, and look forward to more Jeffrey Thomas.
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Reading Progress

August 25, 2015 – Shelved
August 25, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
October 7, 2015 – Started Reading
October 7, 2015 – Shelved as: alternate-history
October 7, 2015 – Shelved as: gothic
October 7, 2015 – Shelved as: new-weird
October 15, 2015 – Shelved as: weirdness
October 15, 2015 – Finished Reading

Comments (showing 1-3 of 3) (3 new)

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message 1: by Ctgt (new)

Ctgt Have not read any of his books yet. I have several sitting around just haven't gotten to them. Sounds intriguing.

Bryan Alexander Ctgt wrote: "Have not read any of his books yet. I have several sitting around just haven't gotten to them. Sounds intriguing."
Try Punktown. Or this one.

message 3: by Ctgt (new)

Ctgt Will do, thanks.

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