REVIEW: Dark Hollow by Brian Keene

Contrapoints once observed that the alt-right told on themselves when they adopted the term ‘cuck’ as their favoured insult.

What that choice revealed was a deep well-spring of insecurity. A lot has been said and written about the darker corners of the internet and how lonely, isolated men wind up stumbling into some weird, distasteful, and generally misguided ideas about women. For some, women are puzzles to be solved using a variety of techniques. For others, women are sadistic tyrants with standards so astronomically high that most men have no hope of ever finding love. Regardless of which variety of online misogyny you stumble into, they all share an understanding of women as territory that needs to be conquered and held. If this is how you see women then it follows that there is nothing more depraved and debased than a man who would willingly allow another man to have sex with ‘his’ woman.

The decision to place cuckolds in the lowest level of rhetorical hell speaks of sexual insecurity: A fear that your weaknesses (both physical and psychological) might translate into an inability to pleasure and hold onto a female partner and an even deeper fear that you might actually enjoy seeing your lover reach a level of pleasure and fulfilment that you could never hope to provide. The alt-right spit the word ‘cuck’ at each other as a way of warding off their own demons as well as their own hidden desires.

While the dark corners of the internet may encourage and amplify these fears beyond the point where they erupt in violence, fear of sexual inadequacy runs deep through all forms of toxic masculinity. It is, to a greater or lesser extent, part of the package when you start to internalise those values and forms of self-perception. To be a man is to be fearful that one can never be man enough.

While I love a monster story as much as… well… the next man… my preferred forms of horror are more psychological and rooted in the day-to-day. All speculative fiction is born of asking what if a particular thing were true, or false, or more exaggerated but the best horror takes real fears and turns them into something more concrete and threatening. That desire to make unspoken fears real is what drives Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow.

Keene is a writer straight out of the 1980s. Neither a household name nor a dilettante, he plies his trade on the small presses, forever trying different things and expanding on them whenever they happen to find an audience. Dark Hollow is a product of these methods in that it is the first volume in a series that has since become associated with a character that doesn’t even get a mention in the first book. Set in small town America, the book revolves around a small-time author who stays home and writes while his wife goes out to work.

One day, the protagonist’s dog drags him into a copse of trees where he happens upon an attractive neighbour giving a blowjob to what appears to be a hugely well-endowed statue. Shocked and appalled, the writer is rooted to the spot until the statue starts beckoning him over at which point he turns and runs home. Licking his wounds and desperately trying to convince himself of the unreality of what it was he just saw, the author keeps returning to the fact that while he was terrified by what he saw in the woods, he was also turned on.

Straight out of the gate, Keene situates us in the realms of fragile masculinity: The doughy, not particularly successful author who sits at home all day while his wife goes out and works a real job. The pathetic rules and rituals the author abides by to grant him the illusion of professionalism. The straight man’s reluctance to recognise or even acknowledge an ounce of curiosity about anonymous public sex.

The author spends days trying to scrub this memory from his mind until the cops turn up and start asking questions as it turns out that his attractive neighbour is not the only woman who has disappeared off into the trees.

Doughy not-particularly-successful author turns out to be on pretty good terms with his neighbours and events in the neighbourhood force them into a group filled with bantz revolving around the other guys’ physical and sexual inadequacies. This beta-male bonding session soon bears fruit when their wives start hearing mysterious pipe music and wanting to go and join their mystical lover in the woods.

Much of the horror in the book stems from the moments when women come under the power of the Satyr. Upon hearing his music, the women shed all social niceties and surrender to their ravening libidos, gurning, drooling, and furiously masturbating at the thought of that huge animal cock.

There’s an interesting ambiguity in how Keene handles these scenes. On the one hand, the women in the story are clearly under the influence of the Satyr’s magic pipes and their insane, ranting desire for him is not something they would express under normal circumstances. On the other hand, the obvious inadequacy of the male characters and the protagonist’s own reaction to the pipes suggests that while the women might not want to express these desires under normal circumstances, that does not make those desires any less real. This is pretty much a perfect example of what fan fiction writers would call dub-con or dubious consent in so far as the sex is neither explicitly rape nor explicitly consensual.

Keene lingers on the incompetence of the male characters by having them try to combat the Satyr only to wind up stranded miles from home while the beast makes merry sport with their wives. There’s even a lovely bit when one of the group has to beg a colleague for a loan of his car only for it to be revealed that everyone at work knows him by an insultingly diminutive nickname.

Keene is a writer who knows his audience as well as his business.  As a result, the book doesn’t really dwell on the implications of what happens in the novel. There is no moment in which a wife, having been rescued from the Satyr, lets slip an expression of regret at the thought of having to go back to infrequent sex with a podgy under-endowed author who seldom lasts more than three pumps. Nor is there a scene in which an aging middle-class professional watches his wife getting railed in a copse of trees and slumps to his knees whilst begging for the opportunity to lick her clean. These ideas are never explored and yet they hang over the entire novel.

Even if we don’t accept the idea that this is a novel about male sexual inadequacy, I think that Dark Hollow raises some interesting questions about sexual desire. One of the most interesting things about the fan fiction scene is that there is a hard and fast divide between who you are and what turns you on. Someone writing dub-con incest fic is usually not assumed to be either a rapist or a sister-fucker. This divide speaks to the idea that there might be a difference between the people we think we are and the people we become when we are all fucked up on libidinal hormones. Indeed, we don’t usually identify with the people we become when we are drunk, high, or menopausal, so why would we identify with the people we become when we’re sprung? Why are some hormones and chemicals integral to our sense of self while others are not? What are the limits to the chemical self?

As much as Dark Hollow is a novel about male anxieties surrounding sexual inadequacy, it is also a novel about losing control when faced with one’s baser desires. It’s about becoming the person entailed by your deepest and darkest fantasies.

Michael Haneke’s The Piano Teacher revolves around a lonely, isolated, and sexually frustrated woman who struggles to reconcile her straight-laced outward persona with the range of transgressive sadomasochistic desires that seem to be running through her head all day long. The film’s climax comes when a young man inadvertently learns of the piano teacher’s freaky bucket-list and moves to fulfil them for her. Having experienced her heart’s deepest desires, the piano teacher is left broken and bereft. Those desires came from her but they were not her. Acting on them brought those two planes of being into alignment forcing her to deal with the fact that she was suddenly exactly the kind of person who would do those kinds of things.

It’s easy to imagine a final chapter of Dark Hollow that plays out along similar lines. The evil of the Satyr lies not in his use of magic to elicit dubious consent but in his ability to bring identity and desire into absolute alignment. He not only gives pleasure, he gives you what you want in a way that is impossible to bear.

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