I’ll be honest: I judge books by their covers. If I see a book on a shelf with an interesting cover, I’m more likely to pick it up than a book that has a plain or otherwise boring cover. My preferences run the gamut, from heavily illustrated to elegantly minimalist, so I can’t really say for sure what sort of specific style attracts me. I just know what I like, and I’ll know it when I see it.
However, I will say this in my favour: a nice cover is just the beginning of my selection process. It’s what grabs my attention, makes me want to take a closer peek at the book. The blurb at the back or on the inside flap (in the case of hardcovers) is the next step in the process. This is why I think it’s still important for publishers to put a short summary about the book on the back or on the inside flap: it helps a potential buyer figure out just what they’re getting into. One-line praises from other authors just aren’t enough to convince readers that they should buy the book in question; after all, if one doesn’t know what it’s about, what’s there to say that it’s something one wants to read in the first place? And no, saying that sites like Goodreads or Shelfari will fill in that gap is not enough, because it’s not as if all of us can be on the Internet all the time.
Personal gripes about publishing choices aside, though, the first thing that made me pick up Edgar Cantero’s The Supernatural Enhancements was the cover: very striking black-and-white artwork reminiscent of Victorian-style ironwork, with the title integrated into the facade of a mansion. The eyeball moon was a bit unnerving, and felt a touch overdone, but I supposed it served some sort of purpose – or at least, I hoped it did. And since the summary at the back seemed to indicate a promising read, I figured that it might prove interesting.
As it turned out, The Supernatural Enhancements was quite interesting: a mishmash of treasure hunt, ghost story, and cryptographic thriller, with an experimental stylistic twist. However, that blending of genres – to say nothing of that attempt at “experimentalism” – may have worked against the story, to a degree, resulting in a book that felt as if it didn’t quite know what to be.
The Supernatural Enhancements is about a man known as A., who is of European extraction and has come across the pond to claim Axton House, which was willed to him by a distant relation after said relation committed suicide. Together with his companion, Niamh, the two of them move into Axton House and realise that it – and his distant relation – may have been tangled up in very strange, very mysterious doings. There’s talk of ghosts, and cult-like meetings taking place in the house, and A. and Niamh quickly find evidence of these strange happenings. Deciding to get to the bottom of everything, they begin working on untangling the mysteries of Axton House, telling their story through a collection of letters, journal entries, video tapes, audio transcripts, notes, and a whole host of other ephemera.
The first noticeable thing about this novel is the way the story is told: not in the typical straightforward narrative style of most novels, but in what’s been dubbed the “experimental” style – which, I suppose, just means any method that’s not the usual way novels are written. The last time I read anything in that vein, it was Mark Z. Danielewski’s House of Leaves, which played around with typography and typesetting in order to achieve a specific effect. This rendered House of Leaves into something that was halfway between book and toy, because there would be times when I had to turn the book upside down, or spin it around and around, in order to read the text. It also meant that the book took a while to read and process: reading one story in the footnotes and another in the body of the main text is difficult enough on its own, without having to deal with other aspects of the text like why certain words are printed in blue or red, or why there are only a few words on one page, and then crammed into another in small type.
The Supernatural Enhancements, fortunately, is not nearly so complicated as House of Leaves. There’s no need to turn the book upside down or round and round, and the footnotes are minimal, and don’t really play any great role in the story except to give further clarification and explanation. What does make it “experimental,” though, is that the story is told through snippets of letters, diary entries, even transcripts of videos and audio recordings of conversations. These are non-conventional methods of telling a story, particularly the audio and video transcripts, and I found it quite interesting that Cantero used them in the first place.
They make sense, of course: in today’s multimedia world, where text is no longer the sole method through which a story may be conveyed, it makes sense to tell a story in as many methods as possible. However, I do rather wonder if Cantero’s strictly textual approach to telling this particular story might not have been the best method anyway. Why not go for a genuinely multimedia approach, and do something like a blog, where one can post audio and video content as well as textual? Or perhaps an interactive e-book of some sort would have worked too: have there not been noises about taking books in that direction, especially given the widespread use of smartphones and tablets? I suppose those approaches weren’t taken because they wouldn’t have as far a reach as a purely text-based book or e-book, but it is something of a pity that a story that relies so heavily on different kinds of media would be boiled down to just text.
Of course, this brings up the question of whether or not the story is strong enough to have made some headway on the Internet: meaning, it’s interesting enough to gain enough attention to go viral. To some extent, I think it would have: the Internet likes a good horror story (as evidenced by the popularity of sites like Creepypasta.com), and stories of conspiracy theories always seem to go down well. If one includes the fact that the story told in the novel is told in a way that looks like it could be real, then it seems entirely possible that, if The Supernatural Enhancements had been a website instead of a book, it could have done just fine on its own. It probably wouldn’t have had immediate, explosive success, but I think it would have done quite well.
But then again, there’s that question of “immediacy,” and admittedly a book is more immediate than a website. After all, it would have taken me a much longer time to decide I wanted to read The Supernatural Enhancements if it had existed as a website, rather than as a printed book.
But had it been the other way around, could the story have held up? Could it have gone viral? I think, as a website, specifically, it would have, eventually. The story is interesting enough as a mix of haunted house Gothic and Illuminati-esque conspiracy theory that it would have generated some interest and been relatively popular. As a book, however, limited by the printed word, it doesn’t work quite so well.
The main problem, I think, is that the story is meant to be a lot more interactive than it is. There’s portions that involve code breaking that I think would have been fun if the reader had been allowed to solve the code on their own, with the option to simply click a button if they give up or to wait with progressing through the story until they’ve solved it themselves. In a printed book, there’s no such option: the reader must progress, and therefore they must suffer through an explanation of how the code works and how it was broken in order to get on with the story. Some codes can be left alone, their solution explained through storytelling, but the most complicated codes included in the novel would really benefit from some interactivity – the kind of interactivity that only hypertext and the Internet can provide.
As for the rest of it – plot, characters, and so on – they work fine, in their own way. I liked Niamh quite a bit, and while I think A.’s a mediocre character overall, I do like his snark. However, I think the success of the entire story (as it does with so many of these novels labeled “experimental”) necessarily rests on the way in which it is told, and in this case, The Supernatural Enhancements doesn’t quite succeed in the same way that House of Leaves does. After all, House of Leaves is, all philosophical meandering and artistic flourishes aside, essentially a horror story, and it’s very aware of this fact. The Supernatural Enhancements, on the other hand, can’t seem to make up its mind as to what it is. Is it an adventure? A cryptographic thriller? A haunted house horror story? While I don’t mind genres mixing together in a novel, and can readily appreciate any author who can bring genres together and make them play nice with each other, The Supernatural Enhancements just isn’t one of those novels where the genres come together and manage to play nice.
Overall, The Supernatural Enhancements is a potentially good story, but told in a manner that might have worked better in the hypertext, multimedia environment of the Internet than in the printed word. it has many of the elements that could make it quite popular on the Internet: horror stories, conspiracy theories, and secret codes that need to be broken. Stick those together on a website, weaving A.’s letters and journal entries with actual video and audio recordings and cryptographic games, and one has the makings of a website with a high potential for going viral. But the limits of the printed word necessarily confine the story, not allowing it to stretch to its fullest extent, which is something of a waste. Also, the mix of genres might go down well online, but they don’t fit very well together in print – at least, not in the way that they’ve been handled in the novel.
If this does become a website, I think I’ll pay it a visit and enjoy it much more that way, but as it stands, I think only readers with patience and a predilection of cracking codes will be able to draw the most enjoyment from it.