"Header" Book Review
Written by Edward Lee
2012, 100 pages, Fiction
Released on December 1st, 2012
In literature, each genre has its devoted followers and, when you talk to folks pertaining to those groups, there are books that always pop up. If you're talking to hipsters that have read only about a dozen books, it's Dave Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest. In a crowd of sci-fi freaks with a passion for David Lynch, it's Frank Herbert's Dune. Journalists have Tom Wolfe's The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test or Hunter S. Thompson's Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga. In an anti-globalization group, Naomi Klein's No Logo. I could go on and on, but you get the idea. So, what book comes up in most conversations between fans of hardcore horror? Easy: Edward Lee's Header.
Despite being a novella, Header tells the complete, intersecting stories of two characters. First there's Travis Clyde Tuckton, a hillbilly who was recently released from jail and comes to live at the only place he can think of: his grandfather's dilapidated shack in the woods. Travis wants to help Grandpap in any way he can. The old man lost his legs to diabetes, which left him confined to a wheelchair, and barely survives with the money he earns making boots. As the young man grows closer to his grandfather, he learns about headers, something he always heard about as a kid and was curious about. Before long, he will know everything he needs to know about headers, and then he'll start participating in the tradition.
The second story is that of Stewart Cummings, a government agent who's forced to run drugs in order to afford the ever-growing list of medicines his sick wife needs. While he might be engaging in criminal activity, Cummings is still concerned about doing his job and becomes worried when bodies with strange head wounds start showing up in backwoods roads and farms. Unbeknownst to him, the victims all met their end the same way: through a gruesome form of revenge known as a header.
Header, which became a movie in 2006, is a gem for a variety of reasons. For starters, Lee switches his prose every time he changes characters. When you're reading about Cummings, the writing is standard Lee. However, when the action relates to Travis, the prose is one of the thickest and funniest southern accents I've ever read. Bad writing is easy (that's why so many people do it!), but writing incorrectly on purpose and successfully bringing to the page the rhythm and small idiosyncrasies of the way a specific demography speaks is very hard to do. Also, the gore and violence here are intrinsically connected to the narrative. While books like The Haunter of the Threshold are infinitely more hardcore in their depictions of sex, brutality, sadism, and death, Header offers a healthy dose of all that in a context that almost makes it excusable. Last but not least, there's the fact that he came up with an entirely new concept.
Ultimately, the beauty of Header resides in the fact that, although both commit atrocious acts, Travis and Cummings are likeable characters who, deep down, are nothing more than good guys trying to do the right thing under very strange circumstances.
If you love hardcore horror, Header is a must-read for you. However, if you're reading this and are familiar with Lee's work, you probably already knew that. Now go read this classic and then try not to think about it every time you hear someone using a drill.