The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl
Bantam Spectra / Random House
US Trade Paperback First Edition
Publication Date: 11-29-2005
401 Pages; $12.00
Date Reviewed: 01-19-06
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2006
With a title like 'The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl', readers might think they’re going to get something lurid, simplistic, maybe a bit off-color. But don’t let the title or the faux-aged cover deceive you. Tim Pratt's new novel starts out as a modern-day horror novel, set in Santa Cruz, California. You'll meet the requisite cast of characters; Marzi, who runs a coffee shop, BJ ("Beej"), the down-and-out art student, Lindsay, Marzi's bi-girl friend (just a friend), and Denis, the prissy, obsessive artist. Marzi herself is an artist of some small renown, having written and illustrated the comic book titled The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl. At first, it all seems pretty straightforward. Marzi has a fear of doors, and we know that something strange is loose in Santa Cruz, something even weirder than the town itself. But if you noticed that there's an awful lot of art afoot, then you've got a clue that this is not your standard horror novel.
'The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl' may start a bit awkwardly, but as you get into the novel, the details accumulate, the characters coalesce and you'll find that Pratt has a much clearer idea of where he is headed in his strange adventure than you might at first have guessed. Pratt does a superb job at staying out of his own way, so good that readers might not notice how good. You'll find yourself immersed in the strange milieu of Santa Cruz, a town that Pratt clearly loves, even if he seem bent on leveling it. You'll find yourself taken with characters who are all shades of gray. And mostly, you'll find that Pratt manages to thread a lot of interesting details, thoughts, conceits and imagination into his page-turning story of terror in a small town.
Pratt's characters are an interesting bunch and pretty fun to hang around. Marzi is glue that holds all the parts of this novel together. She's an artist with a big blank spot that needs to get filled in. In a sense, the revelation of her character is the plot of the novel. That's a great way to get the reader involved, and Pratt lets this happen quite cleverly. He's pretty low-key in the way he develops her phobias, her talents and lets her inner journey and outer journey converge. As things get weird, weird seems natural.
But a horror novel needs strong subsidiary characters, and Pratt's cast is well developed if not well-rounded. You've got a couple of men you'd probably prefer not to meet, a woman most men would love to meet, and a woman who could clear out a party even before her unpleasant experiences. I especially liked Denis, the fussy compulsive. He's not a very likable guy, really, and he does some pretty despicable things. But Pratt really puts you into the poor guy's faulty mind. Though he's pretty dire and behaves badly, still, he's compelling. You may not like him, but you will feel for him. And when you sort out your own feelings about the characters, you'll start to realize just how good a writer Pratt is.
This being a horror novel, a bad guy is required, and once again, Pratt displays a great combination of ingenuity and imagination. Pratt's bad guy is not in the least bit human, and not even really a character in the normal sense of the word. But it has to make an appearance, and Pratt's permutations are quite entertaining and horrific without being flat-out gross. Pratt's the kind of guy who wants to scare you with ideas, not splatter you with vomit. But he's not above a little mud wrestling, and hey, neither am I.
At the heart of 'The Strange Adventures of Rangergirl' are indeed the adventures of Rangergirl. On one hand, they’re the sort of weird western adventures that you might have seen if you read certain graphic novels or enjoy the work of writers like Joe R. Lansdale. That's the terrain that Marzi travels in her comic-book creation. But on the other hand, the adventures of this novel take place at the moment where an individual experiences art, in that moment when we're transformed and transported into the world that the artist has created. Pratt's smart enough to know that the audience plays a big part in creating that world, which is why he spends so much time on the minutia of the characters and setting. Once readers are immersed in his vivid facsimile of Santa Cruz, once we're in love with that city and place, it's a lot easier for him to take us on the next step in his journey. This is not to say that Pratt tries to lull you with a pulse pounding narrative and then pounce on you with a huge club labeled "ART". He's more of a poisoner than a clubber. But lulled you will be and when the hallucinations start, don't say I spoiled it for you.
Instead, kick back, enjoy the ride and hope you meet someone as convincingly wonderful as Lindsay, as smart and creative as Marzi, as crazily compulsive as...well, maybe you wouldn’t want to meet Denis, so much as figure out that you are Denis. Or not. Your adventures are not likely to be as weird as those of Marzi, Rangergirl or anyone else in Pratt's cast. If art and artists give you hives, stock up on antihistamines before you start this book. But if the idea of ancient evil meeting modern comic-book art sounds alluring, just give in. When you feel the earth move, it's not an earthquake. It's a personal problem, with a solution as old as a paintbrush and canvas. Just tell yourself a story.