It’s always difficult when you want a book to be something that it isn’t. Do you judge it based on its own merits, or based on what it could have been? The former seems only fair, but when the promises held out by a book are as tantalizing—and as tantalizingly close to realization—as those in Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements, it’s difficult not to do the latter.
The Supernatural Enhancements is Cantero’s debut English-language novel, and it’s an ambitious one. A supernatural thriller told via journal entries, letters, and transcribed audio and video recordings, the novel bears more than a passing resemblance to Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, but it also hearkens back to a longstanding Gothic tradition of patchwork narratives (Dracula and Frankenstein both come to mind). The story opens when our protagonist—unnamed save for the letter A.—and his friend Niamh arrive stateside; A. has inherited a large amount of property from a long-lost, recently deceased cousin named Ambrose Wells, and has come to take ownership of Axton House and everything in it. Like any old estate worth its salt, though, Axton House harbors its fair share of secrets. The house’s new residents quickly come to believe that the premises are haunted, but the novel’s horror movie trappings—strange shadows on the walls, electricity on the fritz—ultimately fall by the wayside as A. and Niamh uncover the existence of a secret society whose members seem to know something about the strange, disturbing dreams that A. has begun to experience night after night.
It is largely in these latter pages that The Supernatural Enhancements finds its footing. For all the quirkiness of the novel’s form, there is a staleness to the haunted house narrative that is relieved only by the sheer gruesomeness of some of its revelations; cannibalism and proto-eugenics both make brief appearances in a ghost story that owes much to the Lovecraft classic “The Rats in the Walls,” but that ultimately lacks the latter’s punch-to-the-gut horror. In fact, the novel’s best moments—pre-denouement—all feature a wink and a nudge to the conventions of the horror genre; “There was a storm lingering about,” A. writes at one point, “but that was probably yesterday’s rain on its way off. Axton House is just a house. A beautiful cliché at best. It cannot pretend to be the source of all evil.”
The problem with this sort of self-referentiality is that it too has become increasingly common in speculative fiction; it’s nice of Cantero to drop a reference to Poe’s “The Gold-Bug” when cryptography enters the scene, but it no longer causes quite the intellectual frisson it might once have. And, somewhat strangely, the postmodern self-awareness of The Supernatural Enhancements does not extend to the novel’s idiosyncratic form, which never really justifies itself as it does in House of Leaves.
Fortunately, there is ultimately both rhyme and reason to Cantero’s self-reflexivity. In the last hundred pages of the novel, Cantero introduces us to a cast of strange, archetypical figures—“The Lover,” “The Sage,” “The Monster,” “The God,” and so forth—and to the never-ending quest to uncover their true significance. And little wonder. Though many of the figures appear to be ordinary people, some are so fantastical as to have wandered in from alternate realities: a skeleton plays poker, and a woman drops unaided from the stratosphere only to “kaboom-land on [a] rooftop,” shattering the cement around her but walking away unscathed.
There is something of the sublime in these figures—an impression of transcendent meaning that eludes the novel’s efforts to represent or explicate it. This is not a criticism. In the novel’s final pages—in this array of fairytale characters—Cantero gets at something fundamental about the nature and purpose of reading. It is surely no coincidence that the novel itself draws a parallel between the object that will reveal the existence of these figures and that most seemingly mundane of objects, a book:
A: …You must know how it works. An artifact containing…raw feelings, unprocessed sights and sounds and pains that the brain interprets—is that too crazy?
Dr. Belknap: No. It has existed for thousands of years. It’s called a book, 213
But while the brain may try to “interpret” such sights and sounds, The Supernatural Enhancements ultimately suggests that we read not so much to comprehend as to flirt with the incomprehensible. Watching The X-Files with Niamh, A. reflects that “like Mulder” he’d “like to believe”:
I think I want to believe because I need that limbo between the real and the unreal to exist. I don’t want this wall imposed by my precursors, a border to which my reason must abide: “This side is real; that one is not; bacteria and hallucinations exist; ghosts and UFOs are bullshit.” I don’t want my reality set, my world defined.
It’s a sentiment later echoed by a member of Ambrose’s secret society; everything about their quest “trespasses the boundaries of our comprehension….blatantly escapes mankind’s consensus of what is real, of what is possible.” Through reading, through fiction, we too can tap into a “magical past” that resonates as true even as it “defies logic.” And here lies the true significance of the novel’s title; if A. does not want his reality “set,” perhaps he would like to see it “enhanced” through the liminal, real-but-not-real realm of fiction.
All that said, I cannot quite forgive The Supernatural Enhancements for its slow start. It says something unfortunate about the novel’s pacing that its most gripping, original, and thought-provoking moments contain virtually no action—are almost entirely exposition. To put it another way, I would have liked to see Cantero push the bounds of his self-referentiality further; the mythmaking of the novel’s final pages could easily support the weight of an entire story, providing a meditation on the nature of fiction without resorting to the coy gimmickry that occasionally causes the novel’s early pages to drag. Still, readers prepared for an uphill trek in the first 200-odd pages of The Supernatural Enhancements will find their patience amply rewarded, and I, at least, look forward to seeing what Cantero will dream up next.