Top critical review
Not Quite a Return to Form, but not Quite a Failure
Reviewed in the United States 🇺🇸 on March 18, 2016
Told almost in real-time, The Complex is fast-paced and gory, it’s simplistic plot charging straight for a downbeat ending ripped from Romero’s playbook. Keene keeps the tension and suspense at a maximum, but a noted lack of originality drags down another novel tied to his ever-expanding “mythos”. The central conceit of Keene’s mythos is that all of his works are linked through time and space, and most of the horror in his plots are caused by Thirteen gods/entities and their minions; while it’s never answered, any longtime reader can assume the events of The Complex take place on an alternate Earth where one of the Thirteen is wreaking havoc.
A mixture of The Crazies & Night of the Living Dead, the entirety of The Complex is as such: a horde of naked, murderous, weapon-wielding people show up one night at our protagonists apartment complex, and they must fight their way to a National Guard post at the edge of town. Our leads, of which their are many, are quickly introduced, each one given a trait or two to keep the reader telling them apart from one another—and then the action starts and the book plays out till its sudden ending. There’s the depressed writer, the young trans woman (which, yes, Keene handles with grace and subtlety), the Vietnam Vet, the old cat lady—one chapter is even brilliantly written from the point of view of a cat. Weirdly, it’s the best written chapter and the highlight of the book.
And then there’s The Exit, real name Javier Mendez. The main issue with The Exit—one of the novel’s many protagonists—is the same issue I’ve had with other Keene main characters: it’s yet another Keene character tied to his mythos, and if you don’t follow the mythos closely, you as a reader will be a bit confused. In less than half a page, Keene introduces The Exit as a man who goes around closing portals to other dimensions by sacrificing people, hereby saving the world from any of the Thirteen or other creatures in their service. No real explanation is given to how the Exit came into doing this, if he’s always done this, nothing—believing in his character requires huge reader suspension of disbelief. I then spent most of The Complex thinking to myself “forget the naked crazy people—I’d rather be reading about an Exit origin story.”
To my knowledge, The Exit has previously appeared in three other short stories, scattered about previous Keene collections and anthologies. I haven’t read those stories, so maybe more Exit information is out there—but this being a stand-alone novel, it’s strange that Keene would pick a lead character that the average reader doesn’t know about. In a book with little time to spend on character development, The Exit is a character that’s practically begging to be fleshed out…but just isn’t. The Exit’s abilities never even come into play in the novel—it’s in no way relevant to the plot that Javier Mendez goes around closing portals to other dimensions. (I fully expected the end of this book concluding with The Exit having to sacrifice one of the younger protagonists in order to close the portal these “crazies” are coming from, but nothing of the sort happens.)
Unlike The Exit, of whom we never truly learn as much as we want to learn about, we get Stephanie: recently Stephen, wants to be Rose. She’s a transgendered character that feels real, and Keene once again proves that he can write easily relatable characters no matter what their race/sexuality/religion/anything may be. Other characters in the book aren’t as fleshed out as she is—a full handful of characters in the book are from other Keene works, and the arguable “lead” character, Sam, is yet another depressed writer. Keene has done the sad writer shtick many times before, and it’s wearying to see him use it yet again here.
At the end of the day, The Complex is kind of hard to review. One could ignore the mythos and read the book as a gory shock piece, but it’s obvious Keene was going for something deeper. The book’s theme of perception versus reality (“do you really know your neighbors”/“See us for who we really are”) brings the pulp novel into literary territory, and it works completely. But the book is bogged down by a mythos completely unneeded here—and so many of the book’s characters come from previous Keene stories that one wonders if this apartment complex is where Keene characters go to retire. The writing is pulpy and always entertaining, but like many of Keene’s recent works…I just wanted it to slow down, breathe a bit, and let the plot flesh itself out.
Recommended with reservation: you might close the cover wanting a lot more from this book, but it’s not a bad book at all. Essentially a loose remake/rewrite of The Crazies ft. Keene’s characters and mythos, your enjoyment will rely on your tastes in horror and/or your knowledge of Keene’s previous work.