Midnight’s Lair

February 15, 2016 at 6:00 pm (Reads) (, , , )

lairMidnight’s Lair by Richard Laymon

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Midnight’s Lair was the first Laymon book I read, over twenty years ago, and bits and pieces of the story have stayed with me all that time. It’s a great idea — a group of tourists touring an underground lake are plunged into darkness and have to find a way out — and a lot of the scenes have power, so I was looking forward to re-reading the book, even though his books have been mostly misses with me. This one, I thought, would show me whether there was something good about Laymon’s style.

The short answer is: Mostly. The novel starts off with its hook, unspooling the rest of the events from that moment, and it works surprisingly well. I finally saw Laymon’s characterization skills at its best, since he managed to create his main characters very well, in a short span of time. I think he minimizes them, though, by giving them romantic entanglements that develop in the span of minutes or hours. My guess is he’s hoping to get the readers more engaged in the characters by giving them something to live for, so to speak, but the relationships develop so quickly that they seem trivial. Darcy, the main protagonist, is capable, smart, tenacious, and has more of a reason to get out of the cave than just survival (her mother is above ground, and events develop to the point where she has to get out to make sure her mother is all right), but when she starts smooching and loving on Greg, the male protagonist, she suddenly becomes a lot less interesting. I think developing a romance from the two characters is fine (in fact, it would be disappointing had they not hooked up by the end of the story), but let them get out of their predicament before they start giving over to their physical desires. Speed may be a cheesy action flick, but at least it got the romantic aspect of the story right.

Midnight’s Lair would make an excellent premise book, except for the fact that Laymon has to go and make it about more than just escaping an underground lake cavern in the dark. He has to bring in a group of people who live in that darkness feeding on the people who are unfortunate enough to become trapped down with them. Laymon populates his group of people just right, so there’s internal conflict to go along with the main conflict of just surviving long enough to escape, and that alone is enough to carry the story. I get that this is a horror novel, and that Laymon needed to add an unknown protagonist, but I thought the idea of forty people trapped underground in pitch blackness, along with a sexual predator, was enough of a story by itself.

I do my best to separate an author from his or her fiction, but with Laymon, I have to wonder what his worldview was like to write these kinds of books. In Midnight’s Lair, there’s a scene where people are watching a hotel burn to the ground, and one guy comes on to a woman in her bathing suit. She rebuffs him, mentioning that her daughter is trapped beneath the fire in the caves, and as she walks away, she hears him call her a “tightass cunt”. I’m probably showing my privilege here, but are there really men out there who would act like that in that kind of a situation? That sort of thing isn’t limited just to this book, though; there’s usually a character like that (sometimes more than one) in every one of his books. Laymon at least portrays his male protagonists as being respectful, but did he think all other men were like this? Or are they, and I’m just unaware?

By contrast, the novel also features a character — a sexual predator — in the caves who takes the opportunity to take his stalking of another character up a level, despite the situation being one of life or death. I could accept that, since I can accept that a sexual predator would be self-absorbed, obsessed, and unable to judge the appropriateness of a situation, but I had a hard time with the casual misogyny of the other male characters in the novel. I should note that I started reading Laymon’s books after finishing up Jack Ketchum’s books, where I didn’t see this kind of problem, even when his books were much more brutal, much darker, and committed worse atrocities toward women. There was misogyny there, too, but it didn’t seem to be as prevalent and consuming as it is in Laymon’s books. In Ketchum’s books, the misogyny was the main problem; in Laymon’s books, it’s just part of the background.

Laymon also makes his female protagonists fit, and usually has at least one overweight female character (described by other characters — bad and good — as “gross”), who is either an antagonist, or marked to be killed off later in the story. Later, when the group first get a hint of being saved, they start talking about the first thing they’re going to do on getting out. The men talk of eating steak and drinking alcohol, but the women want baths. Laymon makes it explicit in his narrative: “‘All I want’s a long, hot bath.’ That was a woman, of course.” It’s disappointing in lots of ways, and where some critics can look at his other portrayals of women and write them off as satire of some kind, that kind of casually sexist portrayal can’t be dismissed as easily.

The story is engaging, and is certain to be memorable, but it’s not without its problems. I’m thinking that these problems are just part of reading a Laymon book. I still like his style enough to keep moving forward, but I’m not sure what the difference is between him and, say, Bentley Little, whose casual sexism made me quit reading his books. Though, if I’m being honest, Little’s stories started to get boring. Laymon’s novels, at least, are anything but, even with all the problems.

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