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.