Dark and brooding as the twisted landscape of a madman’s mind, Madison Smartt Bell’s novel explores the color of night as metaphor for the unspeakable. A blackjack dealer in a Las Vegas Casino, Mae scurries to a trailer park in Boulder City after her shift, her cheap rental separated from the encroaching desert by a chain link fence. It is 9/11, and the flickering TV screen plays endless loops of tragedy: aircraft flying into buildings, people frozen in horror - among them Mae’s former lover of thirty years ago: “No voice told me what hole had been rent in the world that day.” Using videocassettes, Mae creates her own loop, one of Laurel bent before the devastation of the city.
Seeing her old lover unexpectedly and in such a state awakens memories of their past, halcyon days of drug-fueled violence and sexual abandon during which a monster wraps himself in the cloak of God, indulging in orgies with his willing maidens then sending them out to slaughter innocents in a wealthy enclave where Hollywood’s Beautiful People frolic behind privacy walls. On this night, horror comes to LA - horror not wrought of the silver screen but of outrage and gore, a senseless bloodbath that shocks the nation.
There is much that goes before. Had a lesser writer than Bell created this story, it might be hopelessly banal or offensively exploitative, romanticizing the violence that thrums in the deepest core of the American psyche, the alter-ego of our best intentions, the ugly stepchild that haunts our history. But Bell guides his monster bred of circumstance and pain who calls himself immortal with a deft hand, the honing of cruelty and pain in lieu of mother’s milk, twisted into an unrecognizable bastardization of family and loyalty.
In the midst of hippie mania, Mae stumbles into that rat-infested, filthy enclave of incipient murderers mesmerized by the ravings of a madman who plies them with drugs and group sex, demeans and reshapes their already deformed consciences to his own twisted ends. Mae flourishes in this community, mutually enchanted with Laurel, both willing to do the One’s bidding. The rest is history - or infamy - in the annals of LA crime, Mae surviving law enforcement’s sweep to reinvent herself in a desert community until she sees Laurel’s face on the television screen.
The psychology of violence is slow and lethal, Greek mythology and demons populating the imaginations of those who proclaim immortality to justify their vile deeds and utter lack of remorse. Is this aberration, a brief outbreak of the dark underbelly of a violent culture that worships pain and destruction? Drawn to the outlaw colony like moth to flame, Mae is meant to be where “all the People moved as One, the Beast of Armageddon.” No matter that this prophet proves false, small and soulless. He has made his mark in the world, albeit exposed: “From his own being he had nothing to offer except the cheapest mortal madness.”
Though Mae holds herself among the immortals and walks in a narcissistic fugue among humans, she is but another creature of the dark in a country in love with death, rage, vigilantism, blood and drama. For those who equate violence with ecstasy, Bell dispels the shabby ambiance of glamour, evil put to rest - for a time at least - “like the last exhalation of a mouse as its spine is popped in a trap.” Immortal damned, madness naked and shivering in the dawn.