The Pantheon: The Basic Eight

My entire family really likes to read. In fact, my sister handles the book section over at The Horror Honeys. We were discussing books of suspense and violence, and she mentioned that I should write a guest post about one of my all-time favorites: Daniel Handler's The Basic Eight. Unfortunately, the honeys don't allow male authors, so my prestigious guest authorship was not to be. But that shouldn't stop me from inducting this remarkable book into the Pantheon.

I was going over my “To-Read” list in Goodreads, and was starting to get a little worried that it was dwindling to nothing. Happily, I stumbled across an article full of Daniel Handler's book recommendations, and my list is back up to fighting weight. For those who don't know the name Daniel Handler, maybe the name Lemony Snicket will ring a few bells. They are one and the same, and his “A Series of Unfortunate Events” books are deservedly one of the most talked-about childrens' book series of the recent past. But those who only know him through the Baudelaire family are missing out, because a lot of the books he's written for adults are equally remarkable, especially The Basic Eight.

The Basic Eight is more psychological suspense than horror, and even the psychological suspense aspect sneaks up on you. At first glance, it's just the journal of Flannery Culp, a teenaged girl who's part of an erudite, somewhat snobby high school clique, and who has an unrequited crush on the school's golden child. But this is no everday diary; this journal is being re-edited for release to the public, because Flannery is currently incarcerated for the murder of that boy, and wants to get her side of the story out. As the book unwinds, confusing passages start to set off the reader's alarm bells. Is Flannery muddling the details on purpose? Is she misremembering? Are the authority figures she rails against truly as moronic and predatory as she claims, or is this a case of the usual teenaged sense of superiority rearing its head?

The events culminate in the murder itself, which takes place on the evening of a wild party. Out-of-control high school parties are almost never written realistically. Hell, they're hardly ever portrayed realistically on film, which you'd think would be easier. People usually just denote “out-of-control party” with a scene of someone barfing or a punch being thrown. The party scene in “The Basic Eight”, though, is truly unhinged. It goes on for pages and pages. You feel like you're getting as drunk as the characters: Events fly by before you have the chance to fully digest them, and you're simultaneously flummoxed and delighted by the usual polite social barriers completely breaking down.

There's aftermath, of course. Flannery and her cohorts may consider themselves smarter than the average bear, but their efforts to bury the events of the party and the murder soon fall apart. Even that isn't the final knife in the gut. There's one last surprise for both Flannery and the reader that suddenly unlocks all those secrets the book was hiding, and explains all the clues it was laying down.

Besides it being an effective twist, the book is just a ripping good read in general. It's funny and tense and brutally satiric. It portrays the insular world of high school perfectly. It completely nails the tone of an egocentric teenaged girl and her equally self-involved friends. Its scenarios of how general adolescent drama bullshit can turn deadly are scarily realistic. It's one of those books that I discover something new in every time I read it, and definitely belongs in my personal Hall of Fame.


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