It’s sometimes disturbing to think about the ways in which traditions evolve. Nothing, after all, starts out as a tradition. The word, by definition, carries in it the implicit understanding that an idea or act has happened a number of times, across a lengthy period, with some level of sustained intentionality. Human civilization functions around, and is beholden to, any number of traditions—whether we realize it or not—encompassing everything from the places and times we gather together, to the things we listen to and watch, to the ways we worship and govern, to the ways in which we understand and treat one another. Some of these traditions—as we’ve recently learned under the Trump administration—are perilously fragile. Others—as we’ve learned under COVID—are so deeply ingrained as to become dangerous in their own right. But regardless of how it evolves, it is the resilience of an act or idea that eventually qualifies it as a tradition—the mettle it shows in resisting historical elimination—the difference between, say, a cult and a religion. And once something enters the realm of tradition—of beats and tropes; ritual and pattern—there’s no going back to the way it was before.
If Michael J. Seidlinger’s new novel Anybody Home? can be said to have a thesis, it would be one aimed at exploring—if not outright codifying—a horrific new tradition: that of the random home invasion. Long at home in the realm of formalist experimentation, Seidlinger here takes the terrifying powers he first sprawled across the cracked, blood-spattered windshield of the great American road trip in My Pet Serial Killer, and hones them down to a point so fine it’ll take your goddamn eye out. Where that malevolent spree crossed every imaginable line and broke every established rule on its way to a certain kind of tradition-defying immortality, this book is much more interested in the history that led its archetypical American family, like lambs to the slaughter, into their claustrophobic suburban nightmare, and indeed, the history that led to our own prurient interest in same.
All of which is to say, Anybody Home? is more than just aware of tradition, or steeped in tradition. It is making a case for tradition; demanding that its subject’s status as hideous tradition be recognized. Long past are the days of standalone shock at the midnight executions of Kansas’s Clutter family or Connecticut’s Petit clan. Similarly behind us is the faux outrage decrying cinematic provocations like Funny Games and Kidnapped as unacceptably tasteless storytelling fodder. In point of fact, through subtle references to everything from The Strangers to Inside to the Saw franchise, along with his own inimitable meta-narrative style, Seidlinger seems to suggest that any previous instances of home invasion were all of a highly orchestrated piece—that even the ones we thought were fake were in actuality something more like crowning achievements of a nascent movement—the best efforts carried out as yet by some shadowy, ever-growing cabal of sadistic voyeurs, obsessed with creating and capturing the most perfect version of this heinous crime, and selling it back to a morbidly fascinated viewing public.
The family in question all remain nameless, identified only as Victims #1-4 (likewise, their tormentors are Invaders #1-5), and their interpersonal roles are as innate and familiar as watching a stage play or even a multi-camera sitcom: the checked-out husband, the put-upon wife, the angsty teenage son, the innocent young daughter. In many ways, they barely know each other, but the invaders know them better than they know themselves, and as their night unravels in increasingly gruesome fashion, each is slowly, systematically broken down to their most basic function and form—like statues being chiseled back into smooth marble blocks. In keeping everyone so anonymous, Seidlinger renders the whole cast oddly fluid—even confusing at times—perhaps in mimesis of the chaos that’s suddenly upended their heretofore humdrum, borderline-scripted daily lives, but also in service of a kind of in extremis empathy. No matter whose perspective we’re reading from—victim or invader—we know these people all too well, and no matter how far off the rails things get, they never do anything other than play their parts—as much for us as for one another. Calling to mind the kids in Scream who know all the rules but still wander off and get stabbed anyway, their endgames are never in doubt. They are enterable ciphers for our own sadism, grief, and fear. Call it Nine Characters in Search of a Bloodthirsty Audience.
With all that in mind (and as with My Pet Serial Killer) Anybody Home? is ultimately a book about the referential nature of performance, violence, entertainment, and watching. It ventures to ask what it means that we, as a society (or at least as a horror fandom/readership) now understand the home invasion story as a discreet subgenre. That we know its structures and archetypes in our bones. That we can recall our favorites from memory and easily spot inconsistencies and clichés in new entries. That we think of it in terms of tradition. But unlike My Pet Serial Killer, with its clinical, behind-the-camera detachment, it doesn’t ask these questions in the abstract, or to the masses. Rather, Seidlinger (who may or may not be the book’s actual narrator), takes a sledgehammer to the fourth wall and demands that we, as individuals, explain what it is exactly that we are still looking for here; what it is exactly that we get out of this shit.
This book will make you question why you wanted to read it, not because it’s especially rough so much as because it’s actually not (it has its moments, but by modern horror standards I’d say it’s much more about tension building—which, to be fair, it does expertly—than serious bloodletting). There are even a few deadpan moments where the author seems genuinely angry with his characters, as though they’re preventing him from writing a book he would find more interesting. But there’s nothing to be done. The stage is set. The wheels are already in motion. And in denying us the kinds of vicarious, balls-to-the-wall thrill-kills that made his first novel so unforgettable, he here abdicates responsibility as author/creator for perpetuating such grotesque violence in favor of placing the blame directly upon us, the ravenous consumers always looking for the next worst thing—the next true shock, the next line to be crossed, the next artist to take it somewhere darker. If all violence is real, he seems to say, then we are all complicit in its making. Supply and demand. Author and reader. Invader and victim.
And so, like serial killers before them, and mass shootings after, home invasions have taken their indelible place in the American storytelling tradition. We have absorbed these atrocities—real and imagined—into our collective subconscious, such that they all reside permanently in our haunted imaginations. No longer dismissible as aberrant one-offs that “could never happen to us,” these are things we live with every day now (one happened in the neighborhood next to mine just last year). We may joke about panic rooms and calls coming from inside the house, but we also no longer hesitate to install front door security cameras and stow handguns under our nightstands. These things have not always been. They came from somewhere, and that knowledge is the real monster unveiled by Seidlinger’s work. That man’s inhumanity to man is self-perpetuating. That traditions happen because we let them. That violence is not a cult, it’s a religion. That there’s likely no going back.
Anybody Home?, by Michael J. Seidlinger. CLASH Books, August 2022. 258 pages. $18.99, paper.
Dave Fitzgerald is a writer living and working in Athens, Georgia. He contributes sporadic film criticism to DailyGrindhouse.com and Cinedump.com, and his first novel, Troll, is set to be released early this year. He tweets @DFitzgerraldo.