Every art form has rules. Some forms, like the Elizabethan sonnet, specify the number and emphasis of beats in a line and lines in a verse. Other forms operate under dicta that (to borrow from the Pirates of the Caribbean script) function more like guidelines. I’m not sure how formalized the rules are in Revenge Stories but I can tell you one thing about Andrew Hilbert’s Death Thing. It has the elements of this genre down pat.
- A Recognizable Protagonist – Gilbert is one of life’s constant complainers, a fellow the rest of us have met and now try to avoid. He’s the self-satisfied old guy spouting opinions on every subject, and insults with every remark. If he’s your relative, you duck him at family gatherings and wonder on the way home why and how his wife stays in their marriage. Like many retirees, Gilbert has too much time on his hands and booze in his gut but the man does have a legitimate problem: vandals have been breaking into his car. Rather than keep his auto in the garage or take his valuables inside when he leaves, Gilbert opts to turn his car into a machine that will “teach” the criminal element to leave his stuff alone. Of course, the lesson will teach Gilbert much more in the end.
- Everyone who Stays, Pays – Have you noticed something about these kind of stories?
The vengeance is always out of proportion to the injury and every character in the story gets clobbered, the innocent as well as the guilty. Gilbert’s “trap” works on the vandals as planned, then it works in ways the inventor hadn’t imagined. FYI: if you don’t like stories with gore, look elsewhere on the shelf. But, before you put this one down unread, consider point #3.
- Horror works well with Humor. An audience needs to let off tension at times. That’s why the drunken porter takes the stage after Macbeth murders the King. and why there are jokes in the early part of Jaws. Hilbert serves up a side-dish of funny in parts of the Death Thing, including a scene where Gilbert tries to teach his wife the tricks of driving a booby-trapped car. He’s nervous, she’s oblivious and their drive-through attendant is about to learn the perils of arguing with a customer.
- There is a lesson behind it all. Along with a cast of cartoonish characters, Death Thing speaks of an alienated society, where property is valued over people and no one heeds a cry for help, not even the 911 operator. Instead, the understaffed, corruptible police advise their suspects, “anything you say or do doesn’t really matter”, (a depressing statement no one but the audience hears) and an old man eventually regrets he chose lethal action over a Neighborhood Watch. Of course, the reader knows those choices can become one and the same in the end. Death Thing may be a story of extremist characters and scenes but it’s within shouting distance of the truth and that may be the tale’s most disturbing point.