Some stories inspire nightmares. In "300,000,000," Blake Butler disposes of the story and goes right to the nightmare.
The author of five previous works of experimental fiction, Butler has written a phantasmagoric horror novel of exceptional brutality. The book announces its ambition with an immediate comparison to Roberto Bolaño's "2666." Like Bolaño's masterpiece, "300,000,000" is divided into five sections, each with a title that begins: "The Part About…"
Other influences read like an encyclopedia of depravity: Dennis Cooper's teen killers, the cryptic blather of "True Detective's" Reggie Ledoux, Harmony Korine's unscripted portraits of freaks and weirdos and the remorseless cruelty of Jim Goad's serial killer zine, Answer Me!.
"300,000,000" sets out to shock, stupefy and disturb: "We made films of everyone we killed. We copied over the movies in every home's collection with the evidence of their ending."
The first part concerns Gretch Gravey, a cult killer who lures teens to his Black House with drugs and sends them on missions to bring back "mothers" — women of all ages — whom he ritually tortures, murders and consumes.
Gravey's account of what happened in the Black House comes through police detective E.N. Flood, who transcribes the cannibal's journal into a shared electronic file into which he posts comments that bring his reliability into question.
"The morning after I read this section, I woke up with the book against my chest. I found I'd copied all the words above exactly onto the cover of my Bible, which I've begun keeping near me when working with Gravey's pages."
This notion of unreliability is reinforced by comments from his superiors, who report that Flood was taken off the case and subsequently went missing, which Flood then denies. There are also comments from the boys of the Black House who offer contradictory reports about the horrors they've witnessed and participated in.
"It seemed like Gravey couldn't even tell who was dead or alive, as he talked to them all the same way, as they were all dead already in the name," says one boy, whose name is withheld.
There is, however, no disputing that underneath the Black House sits a mass grave in which parts of hundreds of bodies are intermingled. A place that Gravey refers to in his ravings as "Sod."
In the second part, Gravey is taken into custody, and that's when things really start to get strange. Everyone who comes into contact with Gravey goes insane. The afflicted initiate killing sprees that expand throughout the precinct, into the community and spread throughout America, with the death toll rising every day until it reaches 300 million — the approximate population of the United States.
Flood goes back to the Black House and discovers a chamber underneath the mass grave, an entry to Sod. The third part concerns Flood's travels there — a world that replicates the one Flood knew but is utterly devoid of people. Flood roams this terrifying underworld convinced he has slipped into one of Gravey's videotapes, desperately looking for a way out. "And with each failure, the same reversal of electricity came sucking through me, evacuating, leaving marked back in my blood another hope I'd given away in the name of nothing."
Butler writes a weekly column for Vice magazine, in which he reviews books, fast food and pop culture. On several occasions, Butler has written about his father, who suffered from Alzheimer's disease. In one article, Butler described his father, who died this year, as someone trapped at the "perimeter of experience perfectly seamed between the real and the unreal."
Perhaps Flood's journey can be read as the saga of a man stuck between the world he used to know but can no longer access and the one he doesn't recognize. This is not the story of a man who goes mad, but the un-story of madness itself.
"300,000,000" is more than an unconventional horror novel: It is a vision of dark power and extraordinary empathy. Just don't read it before going to bed at night.
Ruland is the author of "Forest of Fortune" and the host of reading series Vermin on the Mount.
HarperPerennial: 455 pp., $16.99 paper