Gil’s All Fright Diner, A. Lee Martinez

Tor, 2005, 287 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-35001-7

Saying that this book is pure fun diminishes it somehow. As if the bland truth failed to account for the full experience. As a plot-driven reader, I can often find myself out of vocabulary when comes the time to discuss atmosphere and characters. Gil’s All Fright Diner is one of those book: Though it has plenty of narrative ideas, it sticks in memory for the prose and the good fun of the protagonists.

It starts in a pickup, which is appropriate considering that the novel takes place in a small Texas town where the scenery is made out of sand. Our two travelling heroes, Duke and Earl, aren’t your usual redneck drifters: One’s a werewolf, the other’s a vampire, and together they can fight the even worse kind of undead creatures. As they settle down for a late dinner, they quickly find out that their host has unusual pest-control problems. But it’s not the diner as much as it’s the city… especially when there’s a teenage witch running around stirring up trouble.

The novel truly hits its rhythm as the heroes face off against the undead. Friendly banter, sharp prose, amusing ideas and folksy charm all combine to form a hybrid of Terry Pratchett and Joe Landsdale. Undead cows get a short time in the spotlight as the young female antagonist has to make do with what’s at her disposal: It’s not easy trying to destroy the world when you’ve got schoolwork, no shopping outlets for magical supplies and a minion whose only reason to stick around is trying to get in your pants.

Character-wise, it’s easy to give Duke and Earl the full benefits of character sympathy: Their aw-shucks shtick, equally made of jaded weariness and buddy-buddy dynamics, is immediately likable, and they make terrific protagonists: Not too cowered, not too cocky, with enough amusing banter to plaster a big permanent smile on anyone’s face.

There’s a comic-book sensibility to the entire novel, which is horror without being horrific, and comic without being comedy. Gil’s All-Fright Diner apparently won a YA award, but this should be a guide to the unpretentious nature of the story rather than to the thematic content: There is plenty of undead gore, harsh language and unwholesome lust here to please everyone, including the teenage boys in the audience. There are a few scenes of ichor-mopping here and there (the fights are fun, but it’s the cleaning up that really sucks) and the teenage witch has no compulsion at using her body to get what she wants… which includes the protagonists of the story. Add to that a vampire who hasn’t had a date in ages, a moping ghost as well as a feisty diner caretaker who knows how to get satisfaction and the result is, as I never get tired of writing, a whole lot of fun.

Could it be better? Probably. Some of the comic ideas get old really fast, such as the Pig-Latin spell-casting. As with all horror/comedy hybrids, the tone can be uneven as it races from splatter to silliness. There is an almost-complete absence of weightier thematic concerns, which really isn’t a prerequisite for this type of novel, but could have made it even better. Although, as I write this, it occurs to me that Gil’s All-Fright Diner is almost a point-for-point parody of the latest urban-horror vogue. By taking the usual monsters-fighting-monsters plotl and setting it in small-town constraints, Martinez indulges in a clever reversal of the usual clichés.

Still, there’s a lot to be said for a small perfectly-formed piece of entertainment that delivers exactly what it promises to do. In many ways, Gil’s All-Fright Diner reminded me of TREMORS with its small-town atmosphere, redneck banter and mixture of action, terror and humour. Sam Raimi, in his earlier phase between EVIL DEAD II and DARKMAN, would have been the perfect director for a cinema adaptation of this novel. As it is, it’s sufficiently close to a charming B-Movie aesthetics that many media horror fans will feel right at home.

But Gil’s All-Fright Diner is more than a good book that ends well: it’s the kind of story that, only a few pages in, lets you know that you’re about to enjoy this experience and doesn’t disappoints afterwards. Everyone will make it to the end with satisfaction, perfectly happy that everything went well. It’s a great debut novel by an author who obvious knows what he’s going. Don’t miss it if small-town horror comedies are your idea of a good time.

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