William Benek is a detective, third class. He is not distinguished in his profession. He does not have much of a personal life. On the first page of Empties, Benek is at the crime scene of a dead wino. Rather than simply letting the death slide as just another dead wino, Benek investigates the neighborhood and digs deeper into the autopsy when the report comes back noting that the brain of the wino had been removed with no obvious means of emptying the skull. His only lead is a local property owner, Dierdre Matera.
Dierdre, of course, is more than just a lead.
Initially seeming to be not much more than story about a third rate (not even second rate) detective investigating a weird might-be-a-crime, by page 47 Empties becomes a spiraling descent into madness and horror. There is no question that bodies are slowly piling up and that the bodies are missing brains. This is strange, yes. From a societal standpoint, however, there is just not enough evidence for Benek to convince his Captain, let alone put together a case to catch a killer with no obvious motive and no cause of death that can be explained to anyone’s satisfaction.
This is where the horror of Empties comes into play. Detective Benek becomes convinced of the identity of the killer but can do little about it. Who will believe him? If another officer does believe there is a serial killer on the loose he runs the risk of a bloodbath without ever being able to convey that the killer can commit murder without a weapon. This is the effectiveness of Zebrowski’s storytelling. The supernatural is almost beside-the-point. The matter-of-fact prose serves to illuminate Benek’s growing desperation.
“He had lost his mind, but it was the right thing to do; to lose his mind and kill her before she took his brain. It all made perfect sense” (94).
This is the style of storytelling Zebrowski employs: simple statements that present a growing tension and a growing sense of madness. The reader knows the brain removal is real and because readers are conditioned to accept what is on the page as truth (unreliable narrators notwithstanding), we accept the killer can do what is presented as fact. Benek, however, does not have the luxury of narrative distance. Benek cannot see past the fourth wall, and quite logically questions whether he could have possibly seen what he saw. Empties moves through the initial denial to belief to obsession when the murders continue and he cannot convince his Captain of w hat he knows to be true.
Empties is not a flashy novel. Even the supernatural appears to be borderline mundane, though nobody else can remove brains like that. It is matter of fact for the killer and so absurd in reality that the only response is to take it as fact. Zebrowski does not concern himself with describing the mechanism. The mechanism does not matter and Empties is a stronger novel for keeping the focus on Benek and Dierdre.
In his afterword, Zebrowski writes, “My Empties plays out between two people who can’t truly encompass what is being offered to them, or what to do about it, much in the same way as what is ‘offered’ in human life, wealth, for example, or political power, or a fast car – all of which merely amplify human flaws. There are black comedy features to my story. Many a man’s intelligence sinks before a beautiful woman. Men and women of power excite sexual longings and suppress reasoning ability.” (pg 161) This review has mostly focused on the horror of Benet’s growing desperation, but the other primary facet of Empties is exactly what Zebrowski writes about here. There is a weird dysfunctional relationship between Benek and Dierdre that begins with the investigation of a crime and continues through a variety of horrific crimes. It ends with obsession and perhaps, a lack of understanding or acceptance. Not that any acceptance would be easy or even necessarily right or healthy.
Empties blends some initial detective work with intellectual horror. The events of this novel are terrible, yes, but the true horror is in the mind of Benek. Even the terrible things done to Benek, nasty as they are, are not nearly as horrible as in the inner turmoil Benek faces and the ruinous mess his life becomes because he alone knows the truth. George Zebrowski has written an excellent horror novel, one which is far stronger than the opening suggested.
Golden Gryphon Press, 2009