Review – The Influence by Bentley Little

Oh, Bentley Little. I love you.

Bentley Little’s been writing the same book since 1990, and I say that with the utmost affection. Almost every Bentley Little novel is set in a small town in the southwest. An evil comes to town, weird things start to happen, and for some reason no one thinks to leave. There’s at least one scene involving menstrual blood or some taboo sex act. It’s downright adorable.

The Influence has everything you’d expect in a Bentley Little novel, and it’s all right there in the blurb.

“After a raucous party…”

Check. There’s always at least one wild party. Usually it’s an orgy gone wrong. (As opposed to the orgies you or I have, where everything goes right.) In The Influence it’s a New Year’s party where the celebrants fire their guns off in the air and accidentally shoot an angel. Things take a weird turn from there.

“The luck of the attendees undergoes an immediate U-turn…”

Check. Most of Bentley Little’s novels begin with a surreal shift in normalcy. In this case, the town’s citizens find their fortunes reversed. A poor hairdresser suddenly wins the lottery. Successful ranchers find all their cattle dead, or their chickens begin laying strange eggs. When handled creatively, this is usually the fun part. Little never uses stock monsters, and his supernatural phenomena tend toward the phantasmagoric.

“Soon the citizens of Magdalena are experiencing unnatural desires…”

                “I want you to lick my hole,” she said.

                He’d fully intended to reciprocate, and he nodded happily. “Of course, madame.”

                “My asshole,” she whispered.

Um, okay.  That’s actually fairly pedestrian for Little, but check. You know the evil is really in full swing when people are extra horny for no reason. Keep that in mind the next time you and your partner get a little crazy. Are you suddenly sexually insatiable? There might be an evil in your town. It’s probably a good time to get out. Which leads us to…

“Next their children begin to disappear and freakish creatures emerge from the surrounding wilderness…”

Except no one thinks to call the police or decides to leave town. Check.

“These are merely the early warning signs of a showdown with a powerful force of darkness, and only Ross Lowry sees the danger that lurks ahead…”

Check. Of course, that’s not to say Ross Lowry is the protagonist of every Bentley Little novel. It’s not like he travels across the southwest from cursed town to cursed town being aggressively seduced by dark-haired women while the rest of the townsfolk are brainwashed by an ancient evil that just happened to roll into town that week. But he might as well be. He’s the one guy in every book that stays sane enough to come up with a plan, and the plan’s usually, “Here’s an idea. Has anyone tried fire?”[1]

I’m exaggerating slightly. Four characters do leave town shortly after the angel’s influence begins to spread. My favorite is the town vet, who bolts after someone brings him a rabbit whose ears have dropped off and have been replaced with horns. There’s also a woman who shows up to visit her family, takes one look around, and decides to come back when everything blows over. Meanwhile, everyone else sits around and wonders why their cable is out and the Internet’s down. The fact that no one freaks out over this is probably the most unrealistic part of the book.

But that’s what I love about Little, just how nonchalantly everyone reacts to the weird shit that starts happening in their towns. Early in The Influence, Ross Lowry’s love interest Jill loses her dog. She spots it a few days later shorn of half its fur and with one eye socket burned out. Later the dog returns home, walking on its hind legs, its remaining eye rolling in its socket, and it’s calling her name.

Jill runs over the dog with her car several times. She considers calling Ross, but doesn’t want to burden him with her problem– her evil undead dog problem– because she thinks he has enough misery on his plate. Luckily, Ross drops by anyway. Jill takes a long walk with him to calm her nerves, they have sex (“There was no reason for foreplay. He was hard, she was wet, and they just did it.”), and then she sends him home so she can do some telemarketing. Hours before, her dog came after her like some sort of possessed, stop-motion Mogwai, but her priority is to fool around and finish her shift.

There’s another a great scene where, in an uncharacteristic moment of clarity for a Bentley Little character, Ross decides they need to hightail it out of town and regroup. So he grabs what he considers essential– his laptop, some clothes, and a box of CDs to listen to on the trip.

It’s this disregard Little’s characters have for the supernatural that I’ve generally come to love. It doesn’t always work– after The Influence, I picked up The Resort, where among other things the main character gets roped into competing in a to-the-death tournament of volleyball and dodgegolf. But the characters in The Resort know something’s wrong, it’s just that the resort continually wipes their memory of it[2]. So while in the beginning of a chapter they’ll be running for their lives from a bunch of naked VIP guests, when they enter another room they’ll forget that anything strange happened and their pursuers will be gone. Also, their car battery is dead, so there.

That’s a frustrating way to solve a “Why don’t people leave the haunted house?” problem. Little’s approach in The Influence is much more fun. Word gets around that there’s a wounded angel metamorphosing into something stranger in a hilltop barn, and that’s obviously connected to all the pipes in the house being filled with fibrous green tendons, and the characters’ reaction is, “Huh. I sure hope the plumber can clear this angel stuff up.”

In a good Bentley Little novel, characters just shrug that sort of thing off. They have more immediate problems to deal with. As Ross’ cousin Lita puts it after the ectoplasmicgunk is cleared from their pipes: “Finally! Now I can go to the bathroom.”

[1] One of the more amusing lines from the end of the novel: “Word had spread that Lita’s cousin Ross was the one who had come up with the plan to destroy the monster…” His plan? Enlist someone who knows how to make fire. The execution of this plan leads to another great description: “And the barn exploded. It didn’t literally explode.”

[2] “Someone had a miscarriage or performed an abortion in our bathroom. How could this happen without anyone noticing?” (It is later revealed that the fetus the couple found in their hotel toilet was a dog.)


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