The Heavens Rise
Gallery Books / Simon & Schuster
US Hardcover First Edition
Publication Date: 10-15-2013
324 Pages; $26
Date Reviewed: 11-20-2013
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2013
We like to say that we are frightened by forces outside of ourselves, but the reality is rather different. Zombies and apocalypses offer as much opportunity for adventure as they do for horror. Focusing all that energy on what's not us allows us to ignore what we are. Sure, it's scary to fight a monster. But it's far more unsettling to realize that you are one.
Christopher Rice's intricately constructed tale of toe-tapping terror, 'The Heavens Rise,' inverts the normal relationship between horror and host. At the center of the novel are four characters whose lives are forged in their teenage years; Niquette DeLongpre, a rich man's daughter; her (gay) best friend from childhood, Ben Broyard; her first, intense boyfriend, Anthem Landry, the out-of-place kid from out-of-town; and Marshall Ferriot, the high school psycho who has a thing for Niquette. A fifth character enfolds them all; New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina, a chaotic, beautiful intense fire of a city that Rice brings to life with his sparse, intense prose.
The joy of reading 'The Heavens Rise' derives in large part from Rice's sense of storytelling, which is powerfully splintered into slivers of lives separated by time and space. Rice offers vivid pieces of a peculiar puzzle; dead birds in a yard, snippets from Niquette's journals, Ben's and Anthem's opposing perspectives on the same events. There's a very nice Lovecraftian innovation to kick off the horror, that's already in progress as we read. Rice favors short chapters and quick cut that jump back and forth in time. His prose is detailed and clipped, fast to read but edgy and poetic. It's a blast to put it all together and a very intense, involving engaging experience.
As the swirls of characters and time deepens, we get to see a slice of New Orleans life that is not often front-and-center the way it is here. Rice has a real talent for capturing chaos in a manner that lets his readers experience the emotions but still get the big picture. His love for the city is evident but never overplayed.
This is also true of his other characters. Much of the story comes to readers via Ben, a wonderfully done gay character whose sexuality is part and parcel of who he is but understated though not uninvolved as part of the narrative. Niquette's part is cunningly woven through the story, while Anthem and Marshall, the more intense figured, are sparingly and very effectively used. Rice does a superb job of nailing the import of adolescent trauma in the lives of young adults. You could easily read 'The Heavens Rise' as a portrait of New Orleans or a coming-of-adulthood novel and be quite happy, once you recovered from your state of disturbed terror.
But for this reader, the real thrills were in Rice's ability to craft a kick-ass old-school horror novel. He's not afraid to play out the consequences of the Lovecraftian SF trope that sets things spiraling downward. He writes great action set-pieces, and some gnarly bits of surrealism cut through the violence. He knows how to sling to gore in a manner that disturbing, but not nauseating. His storytelling style keeps the action fast-paced, but does not rely on an "..and then..." narrative. 'The Heavens Rise' is quickly read but stays with you after the fact.
It's unclear why this sort of novel seems to thrive in hard economic times, which are in the background here, but certainly not particularly germane to the story. Still, it does seem that Rice has captured to real spirit of the burst of energy that brought us puffy foil lettering on paperbacks and the gerund naming trend that still haunts the genre. Readers looking to be riveted by a smart, beautiful novel with a lot of sharp edges are advised to pick up 'The Heavens Rise' carefully, so as not to cut yourself.