House of Horrors

Reviewed by Elizabeth Hand
Sunday, August 21, 2005


By Bret Easton Ellis

Knopf. 308 pp. $24.95

As autumn approaches, it's open season on Big New Books, and here is one of the biggest, in terms of hype if not heft. Killer toys and slavering monsters outside the bedroom door; imperiled children, eldritch ghosts and a psycho-killer on the loose; a drug-addled writer haunted by his own literary creation: Yep, it's Stephen King's newest novel. But surely there were legal issues in naming his protagonist Bret Easton Ellis?

My mistake: This is Bret Easton Ellis's own new novel, featuring a protagonist named for himself. Bret is the narrator of Ellis's ambitious, entertaining, shambolic Lunar Park , which begins by quoting the opening sentences of Less Than Zero, The Rules Of Attraction, American Psycho and Glamorama , the author's previous novels. It's an amusing conceit, if not an original one -- a Philip Roth character appears in several of Roth's novels, including Zuckerman Unbound -- and the remainder of the book purports to record Bret's descent into Hell as he confronts various ghosts from his past, real and imagined.

There's an undeniable, prurient pleasure in Lunar Park 's first few chapters, which mock Ellis's drug binges and priapic, bisexual escapades while teasing readers with literary namedropping: Binky Urban! Jay McInerney! Tama Janowitz! Paul Bogaards! Gary Fisketjon! Sonny Mehta! (The last three form the crack publicity/editorial team at Alfred A. Knopf, Ellis's publisher; Lunar Park is the novel as product placement.) The evocation of 1980s and '90s names and reference points goes on and on -- Cerruti suits, ICM, David Duchovny, Balthazar -- but it all has a slightly musty, lavender-scented cumulative effect, like perusing the guest list from one of Noel Coward's parties at Firefly Hill. Who were these people, future readers will wonder, and why did they wear those silly clothes?

So it takes a while for Lunar Park 's story to begin, as we dutifully trail Bret on his late-century Rake's Progress through bars, bookstores, bedrooms and rehab, until we finally find ourselves in the suburb where he has retreated, hoping to claim some semblance of a normal life. In Bret's case, this involves taking a job as a creative-writing instructor at a prestigious college and marrying a former girlfriend, a model turned actress named Jayne Dennis. Jayne is the mother of Robby, the 11-year-old son Bret has never really acknowledged, and of Sarah, Robby's younger half-sister. Unlike much of the supporting cast of Lunar Park , they are fictional characters. The latter part of the novel, despite its metafictional trappings and ambitions, is pretty much a generic horror story, a kind of literary-celebrity smackdown with Bret holed up in his McMansion, attempting to defend his new family against the forces of darkness.

Ellis has an obvious familiarity with and a real affection for the standard tropes of supernatural fiction. He's admitted that as a boy he read Stephen King's Salem's Lot at least a dozen times. No shame there, and if Ellis had stuck to a single supernatural trope, he might have written a genuinely scary book. Instead, he tosses together so many hoary genre elements that the novel begins to resemble a middle-aged yuppie rehash of a Hammer Horror film, less The Turn of the Screw than "Heart of Dorkness." There's the ghost of Bret's monstrous, violent father, whom Ellis claimed was the inspiration for the serial-killer protagonist of American Psycho . There are little Sarah's evil toy (the Yerby), a post-Halloween haunting of Bret and Jayne's house at 307 Elsinore Lane, croaking ravens, disemboweled pets, mysterious computer messages, things clawing at the bedroom door, child abductions, a hardboiled detective and even a psychic investigator.

One of the novel's more promising strands involves the appearance of fictional characters from Ellis's previous work, but this haunting of an author by his own creations was handled more elegantly by Peter Straub in his recent In The Night Room and more frighteningly by Stephen King in The Dark Half . More successful is Bret's awkward, sad attempt to connect with Robby, whose cohort of glaze-eyed, Ritalin-addled boys is disappearing, one by one.

Lunar Park is often very funny, particularly when detailing Bret's latest self-referential, misogynist writing project, the title of which I can't quote in a family newspaper. "Our hero, who calls himself the Sexpert, dates only models," Ellis writes. "Women keep pleading with him to be more open and emotional, and they indignantly throw out lines like 'I am not a slut!' and 'You never want to talk about anything !' and 'We should have gotten a room!' and 'That was rude!' and 'No -- I will not have sex with that homeless man while you watch!' as well as my own two favorites: 'You tricked me!' and 'I'm calling the police!' "

Ellis also evokes with nightmarish clarity a certain kind of upper-middle-class life, where all the children are Ritalin-dependent and even the family golden retriever is on Prozac. These scenes, the book's strongest, suggest the chilly horror of J.G. Ballard's best work. But the abrupt shifts in tone -- from satire to supernatural to sentimental to scary to schlock -- are jarring and ultimately exhausting. Still, that probably won't deter buyers. Lunar Park has a big promotional budget -- surely Yerby dolls are already in production -- as well a slick Web site where you can look at images of Jayne Dennis and Keanu Reaves, if that's your idea of spooky fun. If not, there's always Salem's Lot . ยท

Elizabeth Hand's eighth novel, "Generation Loss," is forthcoming.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company