Award-winning author Bryan Smith is largely known for his splatterpunk works, and although his 2021 novella The Unseen definitely has some slasher-type gore, it’s actually more character-focused, and has an absolutely great premise that I had a lot of fun with. I also have to give a shout-out to Scott Cole, who did the cover design, because that awesome, retro VHS look was a big factor in why I chose this book of all the Kindle Unlimited options on offer.
At the beginning of the story we meet Allison Cook, an abrasive young woman who is the world’s biggest fan of the Friday the 13th franchise. She’s at a horror convention as the tale opens, and she’s momentarily stepped outside to have a smoke when she spots a good-looking man wearing a Suspiria shirt pretty openly staring at her. Normally she would be creeped out by this sort of thing, as most women would be, but Allison is feeling a little wicked, a little like stepping out of her comfort zone. She has to pretend to be somewhat normal in her regular working life, so when she goes to horror cons, she likes to let her hair down, so to speak. She marches straight up to the guy and asks what his deal is, vis-à-vis all the obvious eye-fucking.
He’s taken aback by her forthrightness at first, but he recovers him aplomb pretty swiftly. As we learn in the sections where we’re inside his head (we don’t find out his real name until fairly late in the story, but it’s Mark, so that’s what I’m going to call him), he’s very aware of how attractive he is. Allison is very plainly wanting to ride the D, and they have some acerbic back and forth, with him not believing that she’s as big a fan of Friday the 13th as she claims, and her passing all of his tests.
He then reveals to her that he has something very, very special that he has to show her that has to do with her beloved slasher series. She doesn’t buy it initially, thinking he’s just trying to get in her pants, but since she’s already wanting him to get into her pants, she decides to accompany him back to his hotel room, against her better judgment. She has two friends, Cassie and Julia, who are also at the con with her, and she sends them a picture of the guy and tells them his room number in case he tries any funny business.
They go to his room and have amazing sex, and then he shows her this very special thing, which is essentially a Friday the 13th movie that should not exist. It is, in fact, titled Friday the 13th IX: Homecoming, and it’s not only fucking GREAT, one of the best films in the franchise, but it looks exactly like a movie that was made in the late 1980s/early 1990s, complete with special effects ostensibly done by Tom Savini himself (or at least that’s what it says in the credits). Allison is skeptical at the beginning of this miraculous movie, thinking it’s just a really good fan film or a deepfake, but as she watches it, she becomes convinced that it’s absolutely real. She can’t figure out how that could be, though; the ninth movie in the Friday the 13th series, as everyone knows, was Jason Goes to Hell: The Final Friday. So where the hell did this movie come from, and is it really as authentic as it appears to be?
On a whim, she decides to swipe the old VHS tape from Mark’s hotel room while he’s in the can. She’s not sure why she does it; she just knows that she has to have this movie, has to find out if it’s real. Obviously, she knows that Mark is going to be gunning for her because she stole it, so with the help of her friends, she manages to slip out of the con early and drive the eight hours back to her hometown without Mark seeing her.
There’s one slight problem, though. It turns out that the movie IS a real Friday the 13th movie, but it’s one that comes from another reality. Mark received it as a “gift” from some kind of creepy, interdimensional being that he calls The Visitor, but this being’s gifts come with a steep price. The rest of the story follows Mark as he goes on a bit of a rampage trying to find Allison and get the tape back, intercut with Allison and her two friends having their lives violently upended by the corrupting influence of the cursed VHS, which wreaks ever more havoc the farther it wanders afield from its original owner.
Like a fast-paced mashup of The Ring with a Jason Voorhees joint, The Unseen is a lively, entertaining tale with a slasher-movie sensibility, but slightly filtered through a supernatural lens. The characters are uniformly unlikeable and not all that developed, but the concept is so fun that it hardly matters, and the book is so short (only 160 pages) that it’s more like a sprint than a marathon. In some ways I thought this strengthened the story, because it didn’t wear out its welcome; but on the other hand, I think I might have liked to have spent a little bit more time on the idea of The Visitor, and its influence in the world. On the other other hand, though, maybe it was better to leave the explanations and back story sketchy, as it did serve to make the being much more mysterious.
If you’re a big fan of eighties slashers in particular, I think you’ll really get a kick out of this book, as it has lots of amusing little references and in-jokes for horror nerds like myself. It’s somewhat gory and has a couple of fairly graphic sex scenes, but nothing as extreme as Bryan Smith’s usual stuff, from what I gathered from the reviews. It’s a fun ride, though, albeit a brief one, and I’m always down for a story about a cursed movie or videotape, so this was a definite win for me.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.