People Live Still in Cashtown Corners and Ravenna Gets

By Tony Burgess
By Tony Burgess

As a teenager in the 1980s I watched a lot of slasher films. By the end of the decade, having graduated from my formative years thoroughly desensitized to media violence, I was starting to think about the larger meaning of it all. These movies weren’t good enough to be truly scary, and the mass production of corpses seemed to have no purpose aside from satisfying the audience’s desire to sit and watch people being murdered in different ways.

The classic slasher film isn’t as popular today, having been replaced by more visceral and (yes) sophisticated substitutes like torture porn, serial killer movies, tales of the zombie apocalypse, and first-person shooter video games that cast their players in the role of heavily-armed exterminating angels. The universe in these fictions is a slaughterhouse, where the strong are predators and everyone else is just meat. Their modern heroes and avatars are killing machines, cathartically taking their revenge on life itself by going righteously postal and butchering their way through whole populations.

Tony Burgess – Stayner, Ontario’s best-known author – wrote a cerebral zombie novel in 1995 titled Pontypool Changes Everything (it was later made into the movie Pontypool, directed by Bruce McDonald). In that book a strange affliction compels somewhat dead people to chew into the faces of the living. No one – women, small children, even infants – is safe as the cannibalistic disease spreads. Just in order to survive regular people have to become violent killers.

Highbrow gore has become Burgess’ trademark, and in these two new novellas the bodies are once again piling up like cordwood in Grey and Simcoe country. People Live Still in Cashtown Corners is a vibrant example of PsychoLit, a novel that deserves to take its place alongside such classic works as Ellis’ American Psycho and Oates’ Zombie. Cashtown Corners itself is a crossway just south of Stayner, home in the novel to a gas station owned by one Bob Clark. For no apparent reason (this is part of the formula), Bob decides one day to go on a murderous rampage, eventually ending up as a squatter in the home of a family he has messily disposed of (though he does try to keep things tidy by stuffing their corpses into sleeping bags, where they swiftly compost into lasagna).

In Ravenna Gets the slaughter is wholesale. For no apparent reason (I said this was the formula), the good citizens of Ravenna decide one day to hop into their pick-ups and drive to Collingwood. There these homicidal hillbillies, armed with shotguns, baseball bats, power tools and pitchforks, embark on a – you guessed it – murderous rampage that quickly depopulates the small community.

A lot of people get killed very quickly in these books.They are shot, stabbed, beaten to death, strangled . . . whatever is most handy. Along the way an axe swings through the air with an eyeball still attached to the blade, and Bob Clark tries to get rid of a body as “shattered and broken and as easy to pull apart as a roasted chicken” while covered in “buckets of dissolved tissue” and a layer of flies so thick it seems he’s wearing chain mail. A mother castrates her son, with his testicles popping out “like pink leeches.”

There’s Canadian Gothic, and then there’s Canadian Grand Guignol.

Burgess paints in short, fierce brushstrokes, a sanguinary impasto that sometimes mires in incoherence. Ravenna Gets in particular is a hard book to follow, a brilliant pastiche of concentrated chaos and unrestrained metaphor that seems to lead nowhere. Cashtown Corners is more conventional, though that statement has to be qualified by the fact that the narrator is insane and sees a lot of things that aren’t really there.

But grant Burgess his dark genius as a wordsmith and his unique take on small town lifeways, one is still left surveying the carnage and wondering what his point is. How should we interpret his vision of the apocalypse?

Forget about there being any rational explanation for all the death and violence. Murder is automatic, totally unmotivated, simply a way of getting rid of people. And, just as with video games and zombie movies, there doesn’t seem to be anything really wrong with this. Most of the victims are probably better off dead, living depressing, miserable lives in junky houses that are cluttered with crap, popping Nicorette and Oxycontin and watching Hostel on DVD.

And most of them are fat. Burgess, one has to conclude, really doesn’t like fat people.

It is a bleak apocalypse indeed. The world is filled with random violence, and any moment may be our last. It is also a heartless, uncaring place where even family members turn on each other. The law of the jungle, the same jungle we all live in, is kill or be killed. The reward for the strong is to live to kill another day. As for the victims, the “red meat,” their lives aren’t worth living anyway, with the exceptions only going to show just how unfair life is.

I don’t think that’s much of a takeaway, but on the other hand both books are a lot of fun.

Review first published in the Toronto Star December 19, 2010.

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