Book Reviews

Review: Robert Brockway & The Vicious Circuit – Mixing Comedy & Horror

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My better half is an avid Robert Brockway supporter. I’ve even read “The Unnoticeables” under his pressure, and I can attest to the fact that Brockway is a great author. But for the sake of my sanity, I thought I could give him a stage to gush about and let it out of his system for a little while. Here’s how a Bulgarian boy (young man) aspiring to become an author himself (blog in Bulgarian) feels about one of his favorite authors and their work.

Basically, it’s punks vs. math.

No, really: “Punks vs. Math” was the working title of a trilogy of novels by author, former Cracked.com editor, and noted beard-having multiple-dog owner Robert Brockway. The trilogy, better known as “The Vicious Circuit”, can’t be reasonably described in so few a word. Watch how I fail to do it properly in a couple of paragraphs.

The Vicious Circuit: A Make-or-Break Premise

There are these beings, inaccurately called “angels”, who observe human nature as an equation that’s in need of solving. They would take a person, figure out the patterns in their existence, simplify them, and try to reduce them to zero.

Only humans, by virtue of being imperfect, are rarely solved without a remainder. Whether a soulless husk of one’s former self, deprived of all moral inhibitions, or a writhing, viscous mass, dedicated to satiating its immense hunger, this remainder serves the angels in their unclear goals.

The story jumps back and forth between two time periods: the latter half of the 70s, going into the 80s, and the middle of the New 10s.

Viciousness Builds Characters

The first of our two protagonists, Carey, is a punk in the best sense of the definition. A dirt-poor, leather-clad callus of a young man, he gets by on what could very graciously pass as his charms in order to score some cigarettes or cheap beer, sneak into a late-night gig by a no-name band, maybe even fool around with a lady that should know better than this.

Together with a bunch of friends, Carey drunkenly stumbles into the servants of the angels and begins unraveling the complicated truth behind the mysterious beings.

Skipping ahead, we find our second protagonist, Kaitlyn. She’s an aspiring stuntperson that experiences all the struggles of living in Hollywood, such as worrying about making it in the business and working a crappy job between auditions.

Also, witnessing a person melt into unbeing and fighting off a superstrong psychopath who played a dumb hunk on an old TV show and may just belong to a cult that caters to the indecipherable whims of floating orbs of light.

Y’know, the usual hurdles along the way to achieving your dreams.

I promise you, that plot description is both completely on point and not even close to correct. These books appear suddenly in a darkened alley you’ve unwisely decided to go through as a shortcut, then hit you in the face with the sheer audacity of their premise, and wait to see how you react.

Sadly, given the sales numbers of the trilogy, it looks like most people have chosen flight over fight. But I punched back, you see, and since I’m writing this review as a survivor of “The Vicious Circuit”, let me help getting you into the fray by arming you with some much-needed context.

Unwitting Beta-Reader

In 2010, Robert Brockway wrote the first in a series of comedy articles, wherein he describes a certain Latino actor, famous for his part in a teen sitcom and a seemingly wholesome public image, as a Lovecraftian abomination that lacks a basic understanding of right and wrong, empathy, and casual human interaction.

Said actor is actually a pretty awful person who’s done quite a few questionable things and has offered no sincere apology and resentment of his actions. I know, such maliciousness is unheard of in these modern times.

Robert Brockway chose to highlight the negatives by recontextualizing them within the horror genre. Suddenly, the lack of empathy isn’t just making you angry, it gets you unnerved. Explaining away any wrongdoings is not only the actor’s failure to reflect upon them, but serves a purpose in distinguishing human morality from his own worldview.

Combine that with inhuman physical prowess and a creepily monotonous voice to get a nigh-unstoppable monster who not only can kill you in the time it takes you to blink, but who can also use some seriously twisted logic to rationalize murdering you, all the while grinning as if you’re just some puppy that’s pooped on the carpet.

The Socially Responsible Start of a Trilogy

The articles became the basis for the so-called “Empty Ones”, the soulless husks who can appear like normal people until you notice the forced smile or the out-of-place vocal inflections. After being solved by an angel, a person can be reduced either to nothing or to the aforementioned remainder.

The author posits that at the very base of humanity, there are two urges: to consume and to procreate. (Those things that consume you would be the tar men. You do not want to meet one.) The Empty Ones are all physically attractive and this is where the whole Hollywood satire comes into play.

With all the stories surrounding the #MeToo movement, is it really any wonder that powerful people who use their looks to influence you might be portrayed as actual monsters?

Maybe they don’t take “no” for an answer because they honestly can’t understand why you don’t want to be sacrificed to an ersatz deity.

I loved the original articles, by the way. I really enjoyed the particular blend of over-the-top hyperbole and genuinely good horror elements. It was kind of like chocolate and blue cheese, two things that shouldn’t taste so great together, yet they do and you don’t even question it after you’ve had some.

Maria: I dare not comment on my boyfriend’s food metaphors or eating habits.

But how does it work, exactly? Let’s try and figure it out.

Crossing the Line Twice

To say that humor is subjective is akin to loudly announcing that the person in the coffin at the funeral you’re at is dead: it’s a blatantly obvious statement and the fact that you’re calling unnecessary attention to a thing that everyone understands is just plain disrespectful. Believe it or not, the joke I just wrote might not work for some people! Imagine that!

Humor can actually be very similar to horror. Finding things funny or scary is predicated upon one’s expectations. The reason it can be difficult to write comedy is that it depends upon subverting said expectations.

Let’s look at a well-known joke: “Why did the chicken cross the road?” Setting up the joke as a question serves to prime the listener and/or reader for an answer that ties that question into a narrative. Maybe the chicken is chased by a predator. Maybe it’s searching for food.

The answer, “to get to the other side,” breaks the expectation of narrative and causes a dissonance within the listener and/or reader. It’s all very dry, I know, but it’s how humor works.

Same thing goes for horror. The best way to write a scary scene, at least in my opinion, is to have a person, a creature, or an object act in a slightly unnatural way, subverting what’s expected. It’s why when someone is standing completely still, without making any noise, feels creepy to us.

Robert Brockway Is a Monster Manual

Brockway is, to me, a master at writing unnatural behavior. This is how, for example, one of the Empty Ones in the second book, um, “The Empty Ones”, gives us their POV narration:

“This thing thumps the skinny boy’s chest. It is a gesture meant to indicate the heart. It is stupid, to think that emotions come from a pump located behind the rib cage. Emotion comes from human instincts failing to keep pace with evolution.”

See what I mean? This is a marvelous description of the thought process of someone who used to be a person before, but now nothing human remains within them. The author even uses “this thing” in place of “I”, just so the reader gets that little extra dab of disturbing sauce on the chicken wings of characterization.

Maria: I don’t know about unnatural behavior but these food metaphors are giving me chills.

I absolutely adore this type of writing, and it should come as no surprise that I’ve been trying to emulate it myself whenever the horror itch needs scratching.

How Do You Blur the Line Successfully?

But the question still lingers: How do you mix the frightening with the funny? Let’s skip ahead in the chapter: “This thing leaps. It drops three stories. It lands on an overweight man, because the overweight provide superior cushioning.”

Once again, we have the monster give us their thought process, only now it breaks the expected narrative in a completely different way. This is on par with the earlier line of reasoning, but this time it’s not so much unsettling, rather than absurd, yet logical for the character.

It goes so far beyond being scary that it moves over into funny. And listen, I understand if it’s not funny to you, but it tickles my fancy juuust right. Which is why I yelled at that funeral. I mean, why I said that humor is subjective.

The Vicious Circuit – A Vicious Verdict

Are the books perfect? Not really, but only insofar as any book has flaws. The plot can feel a bit slippery at times, requiring more attention from the reader, and some of the side characters only kind of work, just serving the narrative until it no longer requires them.

But for someone who doesn’t care in the slightest about punk rock, I found myself rooting for Carey and company on every page they were on. I straight up adored Kaitlyn’s insecurities and how she managed to overcome them just in time to save herself and her friends from whatever abomination was after them.

And even if the last book, “Kill All Angels”, ended in a way that I personally couldn’t find satisfying enough, it still reflected the overall tone of the trilogy. It made the books as a whole feel cohesive and consistent with one another. I don’t have a favorite book because I love them all equally. But don’t let them know that, or they’ll mock me for having feelings, after which they’ll drink my scotch.

Maria: Send. Help.

Also, from reading his Cracked.com columns for a literal decade and occasionally interacting with him on Twitter, I just really like Robert Brockway. He is, in a strange way, simultaneously better and worse than I am, and I mean it in the most flattering way possible.

He’s recently published a new novel, “Carrier Wave”, and the Kindle edition is stupidly cheap for a book that size, so if you enjoy the idea of eldritch apocalypse, do yourself a favor and get busy reading.

Now will you notice me, Brockway-senpai?

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Lover.
Fighter.
Short story writer.
Not really a fighter.
Not much of a lover, either.

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