First released in 1994 as Night School and later re-released in 1995 as University, this is one of Bentley Little’s earlier novels, his fifth out of 29 or 30 released to date. Whilst I have not read every one of his novels, University seems to be one of his best, at least for its twisted comedy if nothing else.
Born in 1960, Little has an M.A. in English and Comparative Literature. His master’s thesis was his first novel The Revelation (1990) which also won the Bram Stoker Award for Best First Novel. The man is like a machine, churning out almost one novel per year on average. He also has a collection of at least thirty short stories.
On the surface, University is like many other contemporary horror fiction: a present-day setting with some unexplained evil force that causes weird occurrences and a few ordinary people as main characters who must deal with said evil force.
University is set in UC Brea. The plot follows three main characters: Jim Parker, a student and editor of the university newspaper; Faith Pullen, another student; and Dr Ian Emerson, a lecturer. All three initially do not know each other and all three notice the increasingly disturbing occurrences on campus. These range from weird notices to violent attacks, just for starters.
Structurally, it is like a typical novel with 35 chapters spanning about 475 pages. And like many novels, there is a lot of filler. If one focuses on the narration that only directly follows the three main viewpoint characters, the plot progression is arguably quite slow—that is, one may think the main characters would take action sooner.
However, the slow pace is barely noticeable at first reading as the author is able to keep it fresh. He breaks up the story by injecting scenes without the main characters, featuring only minor characters who may merely make a few brief appearances throughout. This is arguably an easy technique but some authors just don’t use it or don’t know how to use it effectively. These scenes demonstrate the progression of the evil on campus if nothing else. But they are also often disturbing as they are comical.
This leads to the next point: the author’s real gift is comedy. The humor can be simplistically described as dark if not black and, either way, is just inappropriate. Which is why it is so funny.
As it is horror, the author sets up the reader’s expectation for the weird. But consistent with that expectation and also simultaneously not without being totally jarring, he is still able to hit the reader with some absurd action/reaction or one-liner that elicits laughter. I am a little surprised his work, or at least this novel hasn’t been banned. To be fair, although there is no shortage of violence (including sexual assaults, animal cruelty and an on-campus shooting), it’s not as if the author is encouraging or even trivializing bad behavior.
To some, the humor may across as madness or idiocy but the timing is so precise that it suggests genius which, admittedly, does not exclude madness. In University, the humor is, of course, also a satirical look—if only a superficial one—at academia and human stupidity and hypocrisy in the context of a higher education institution. Anyone who has attended college or university in recent decades can probably relate.
Despite the captivating premise and plot, and it is more plot-driven, the characters are not neglected. They have real problems and they have real feelings. Some elements are arguably clichéd but that is difficult to avoid if they are to be plausible and relatable as people. Whilst slice of life is necessary, it could do less with that deliberately B-grade quality that is common in horror, including some of the sex between the main characters and their partners. It’s not that their relationships are dishonest and some of it is actually relevant to the plot, but some of it is just filler.
Perhaps the main weakness is that all three main characters are part of the writing and literary circles. The author is obviously writing about what he knows, which is fair enough, but more variety would avoid “writer writing about writers”.
As already mentioned, this is like a typical contemporary horror fiction in many respects. The prose is plain and easy to read. Although it may be the norm for a novel, there could be more “showing” rather than “telling”. In any case, there is enough movement or at least enough dramatic action to feign movement and therefore maintain the reader’s attention from start to finish.
What stands out is the comedy and those who aren’t into black comedy or are easily offended by it won’t like it as they would probably dismiss the work as “sick and demented”. This is a novel for an older, well-grounded audience who appreciates or can use that kind of humor… after all, if one takes away the horror texturing, the world is worse than what the novel describes.
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