By BRIAN YENTZ
Told in four parts via first-person perspectives, author Clay McLeod Chapman’s THE REMAKING introduces its audience to the family Ford, or more specifically Ella Louise and her daughter Jessica. Accused of witchcraft in 1931, the familial unit met an unfortunate end only to have their tragedy told, retold and exploited by varying parties throughout the subsequent decades.
The initial set-up is interesting and the overarching concept commendable (each module being a different leap in time), but THE REMAKING suffers from a lack of actual narrative progression and a mystery that’s, well, not particularly mysterious. Instead, it relies far too often on mental diatribes from each section’s narrator(s) which grow wearisome the longer each see fit to complain. This is especially glaring once the book arrives at 1995. Here, the reader is placed inside the bewailed brain of Amber Pendleton, a cynical has-been actress that couldn’t even cut it long enough to earn the title “scream queen”. Having had the important role of “Jessica” in the 1971 filmic adaptation Don’t Tread on Jessica’s Grave, she—and the production itself—have become the stuff of cinematic legend. Now, as a woman that’s been churned through the Hollywood meat-machine, she’s a resentful, angry and condescending icon whose only means of income is signing headshots, pictures and posters of the one (and only) cinematic project she was affiliated with (but hates to be reminded of). When offered the chance to return to the franchise in a remake titled I Know What You Did on Jessica’s Grave (this time in the role of Jessica’s mother, Ella Louise), Amber reluctantly agrees—if only to make peace with what transpired on the film set all those years ago.
There is something compelling in a washed-up personality and what they must do to pass their time when the fifteen minutes are all chewed away, but Chapman relies far too much on Amber’s pessimism to establish her personality. She’s not interesting, performs little to no action of importance and spends all but one or two pages of her segment mentally assailing anyone and everything that’s ever displeased her. This (like much of the book) reads less like a novel and more like a collection of the author’s own dislikes and rants published to page. The reader becomes entrenched in a near constant list of everything Amber despises. From the fans, cons and “fame” to real-life films, directors (like Dario Argento) and the genre itself, THE REMAKING serves more as a scathing indictment than it does anything else. Chapman comes off as very upset about said facets and has created a novelized soapbox so as to convey such vexation.
Now, I for one love cynicism as a literary tool, but I also need something more to latch onto for both story and character. Much like the charred remains of matriarch and lass Ford, there’s very little narrative meat to the REMAKING’s body. While the novel occasionally involves the ghoulish activities of the murdered “witches”, everything else feels like padding by means of monotonous interior monologues. There’s very little gleaned from each subject other than 1) everything currently annoying them and 2) how superior they are to everyone else. Amber’s past as a child actor barely justifies her current disposition as the “scarring” moment of her youth barely registers a shoulder-shrug in terms of horrifying and the resulting fallout through the years of her self-victimizing choices don’t exactly make for an entertaining read—let alone an entertaining subject to follow. While her attitude makes appropriate sense as a naïve child during 1971, her demeanor as an adult in 1995 (during the subsequent remake) is just irritatingly entitled.
Once THE REMAKING crosses the threshold of 2016, we enter the vain brain of a podcaster specializing in folkloric debunking. Journeying to the mythic town of Pilot’s Creek, VA, he hopes to uncover the truth behind Ms. Pendleton, the tragic productions she was involved with and the secrets of the community. He spends the majority of the time preemptively judging the locals before finally engaging with an elderly version of Amber. The resulting finale is weak and unfulfilling as it only serves to replicate the same scenario that ended the previous sections. Beyond a technological advancement, it left me wondering why it was necessary to include due to the—once again—lack of surprise and/or new content that would potentially strengthen the linear legacy of perceived witchcraft and phantasmagoric torment.
That seems to be Chapman’s point—to create insufferable protagonists and address them as a problem (as he does the horror classification/appropriation in general), but that doesn’t make for an empathetic perusal. As characters, they’re not pitiable, barely relatable and are written like self-appointed, “higher than thou” types critiquing the wrongs of a misguided society—while undergoing no thoughtful change themselves. It comes off like Chapman was less interested in developing his own fiction and was instead using each character as simply a bastion to novelize his haranguing of entertainment culture. Again, I advocate this sort of Hollywood lambasting, but I also desire arcs, subjects worth investing in and the fulfillment of narrative over that of prolonged pontification.
In terms of horror, there’s little in the way of unsettling material and the infrequent ghost encounters lack diversity from one section’s spooking to the next. The same descriptions are utilized (lengthy accounts of makeup effects and/or the sight of a charred body) and each follow a similar trajectory in terms of beat and reveal. Ultimately, the culmination of spectral affairs is neither frightening nor meaningful and lacks a proper reason as to why the Ford story even needed to be told in the first place. The introduction establishes all one needs to know regarding the central enigma and from then on, offers no further revelation regarding the murdered mother and daughter, their malediction or Pilot’s Creek in general. The novel seems to posit the danger of conveying a story from generation to generation and its ability to “curse” those who don’t take heed, but there’s nothing innately pandemic about the Ford story, nor is it as dangerous as the denouement would want the reader to believe. The scope and scale of the commination is so minute that any actual threat is nigh nonexistent.
THE REMAKING is a very—very—low-key ghost story in which vituperating the entertainment industry takes precedent over the actual horror of the Fords. There’s nothing particularly memorable about the supernatural rendezvous and their impact is blunted all the more due to Chapman’s insistence that the reader spend more time with bland/unpleasant people, their personal angst and prolonged objections to everything outside their bubble—rather than that of the Pilot Creek lore and denizens (human or otherwise). At least the sleeve’s cover art by Armando Veve is downright gorgeous.
Visit THE REMAKING’s publisher Quirk Books for more information