They’re coming to get you. You won’t see them coming. And what’s worse? You won’t know why. That’s an enticing set-up for a horror novel, but is Robert Brockway’s latest, The Unnoticeables, completely submerged in the genre?
Let’s take in the full picture: Celestial beings—think angels, only more demonic—are watching our every move, meticulously picking out repeating patterns in day-to-day existence. These angels are keen to simplify these patterns and remove any redundancy. They see our lives as a math problem waiting to be solved, reduced and streamlined.
Some of these beings, monstrous and apparitional, will swoop upon any redundant humans and solve their existence in a grotesque manner. But then there’s the faceless, un-memorable human-like beings known as The Unnoticeables. They’re here to recruit you because there’s a grand machine moving the universe onward—and it needs constant maintenance.
That could be sci-fi, horror or something else entirely. There are existential meditations as much as there’s gore clawing its way up from the page. It’s no surprise that Brockway is senior editor for the culture site Cracked.com, where he’s exhibited a keen sensibility for a range of genres through his essays and columns. He told Paste how rewarding his time at Cracked has been, counting each of his fellow writers there (including John Dies At The End author David Wong) as his biggest influence.
In The Unnoticeables, Brockway’s rendered two distinct main characters that are able, just before it’s too late, to evade any indoctrination by these “angels.” One, Carey, is a hell-raising, no-bullshit-taking punk from 1977. The other, Kaitlyn, is an out-of-work stuntwoman in 2013 Hollywood, eking out her showbiz slowdown with a soul-draining day job. Both, whether they know it, are seeking meaning. Only, they don’t like the solutions suggested by The Unnoticeables.
When I mentioned this book to some friends they inevitably ask what it’s like, and when I found myself wanting to say “horror…” I stopped myself. ?
Brockway: Yeah, if you find a good answer for it, let me know.
Over the last 10 years it seems genre lines are bleeding into each other, that we have more hyphenation going on when we critics try to pin something down. Or, is it that our sensibilities are evolving to appreciate a more Venn diagram-esque composite of genres??
Brockway: I think it’s both. Genre lines are bleeding, somewhat. For The Unnoticeables, I always call it sci-fi-horror, which is obviously a mash-up, but the book is also selling well in the straight comedy category on Amazon. And even then, the publisher considered it fantasy, so… Nobody knows what the hell to call it, anymore. I think, to some extent, with books and with music as well, we’re coming up with more and more words for all of the little things, like with vampire stories being categorized as “paranormal romance,” whereas it used to be just monster-horror. And, anything that’s under sci-fi could be post-apocalyptic or dystopian/pharmaceutical/cyberpunk or whatever… More words are there for the more refined tastes but, more than that, we’re also playing with more. I found a spot between sci-fi or horror or urban fantasy when I was writing [The Unnoticeables], but I didn’t want to stick to any one genre.
One of the main characters, Carey, starts out in 1977 in the midst of the legendary New York punk scene. Did the story, spectacularly genre-defiant as it is, come from an urge to compose a love letter to punk rock??
Brockway: I grew up kind of as a punk. I was in central Oregon in the ‘90s, so it couldn’t get more different in terms of a scene comparing that to New York’s seminal ‘70s punk scene. But it was something I always thought about. All punks, everywhere, anywhere, were essentially the same. I’ve had older punks who have read parts of this book that I’d asked to read for checking on the authenticity of the venue and the time and they said it felt true, the friendship between the punk characters in those parts of the book. There’s certainly an urge to romanticize the ’77 thing. I think it’s, to some extent, an urge to go to a place where I could never be.
If I want any constituent from famous music scenes protecting me from soul-stealing creatures, I think I’d want a punk rocker…
Brockway: Right. If you need a musical genre on your side to fight the apocalypse, it’s either punk or death metal.
These are very vivid characters, Carey and Kaitlyn. You often don’t find such a diligent devotion to fully crafted characters in the horror genre…so that’s another thing that can set Unnoticeables apart. ?
Brockway: I asked people over Twitter what their favorite horror films were and who their favorite horror movie characters were and everyone had a larger list of movies vs. just characters. There’s just not enough time to set up those characters and the scares and the way it works in a 90-minute horror movie. In books it’s much different. You can have great characters and, in fact, I think it relies on great characters. If you don’t give a damn about somebody, you won’t care as much when the shit hits the fan in the book. You have to have a stake in it. You have to care about these characters for the scares to work.
How did you arrive at the story and the systems within The Unnoticeables?
Brockway: The whole thing about human beings being able to be “solved” was part of a weird thought experiment that stuck with me for a while. But, if everything could be entered mathematically, everything about us, down to the patterns that your synapses fire, then that seemed like the implications of it were pretty terrifying because we’d really just be a complicated math problem waiting to be simplified and reduced. Then, you’re humanity is just a problem. The idea that human beings are just beautiful math problems, stumbling around. That’s something that stuck with me.
A way of addressing that “big question” that we all ask ourselves…What does it all mean, what’s the purpose of life? ?
Brockway: Questions. That’s all we are. Just a bunch of questions. But, the idea of the Empty Ones in this story came from an idea of a hollowed-out person, a shell of a person. They have a belief system but unlike our religions, it’s without any of the love or caring parts.
There’s a cast of extras, or bit-characters at the periphery of our leads who seem to be shallow, vapid or just posers. Is there commentary here about insincerity, or buying into a pre-packaged trend, be it “punk rock” or “Hollywood”?
Brockway: That definitely crossed my mind. I was conceiving the story in L.A. and that’s a really weird place to me. I had to move down there for work and it was nice in a lot of ways and I liked a lot of people there but, man. There were so many people there who were like a shell. It can feel dystopian down there; there are billboards advertising that you should freeze all your fat off so somebody can smash it off with a hammer. Where did their humanity go to be like this? That just got me thinking about so many people who want to fit in there and kinda twisting that around and turning that into something to be afraid of. We’re afraid of that ourselves, so, mining that into the vein of horror, as something you’re afraid of and turning it into an external monster, that’s something a lot of horror books do and it’s vital to creating a great villain.
As you have, here. Only it’s more than just a horror book. What can we expect in the next two books?
Brockway: With this book, I think there was a lot of stuff about what it means to be who you are and what it means to have free will…if we do have it and the responsibilities that you have because of it. All of these things become more apparent in the second and third books, but that’s about as complicated as the message gets. In the next books you’ll definitely get more answers.