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Teeth by Edo Van Belkom (Meisha Merlin, 2001, 255 pp.)






Edo Van Belkom has a flare for absurdist black comedy, demonstrated in short stories such as "The Rug" and "Bum Rap." He'd read "Bum Rap" to laughter and applause at the 2001 World Horror Convention. The applause was partially for his frenzied delivery, partially for "Bum Rap"'s hilariously over-the-top premise: a woman who sucks men up her anus, then excretes them in a messy explosion.

Yes, it's an envelop-pusher.

Teeth's premise seems right up Van Belkom's alley. A woman serial killer with vaginal teeth. She copulates, then castrates and kills her victims. The term "castrate" is used throughout the boo, even when it's only the penis that's severed.

Academics have long recognized the castration symbolism in much of horror (e.g. the tentacled sucking monsters in 1950s horror/sci-fi films). Teeth's contribution is to remove all symbolism and present this primal fear unadulterated.

Regrettably, Teeth is a surprisingly drab book, with less sex and gore than its premise suggests, flatly written and without humor. In lieu of humor, Van Belkom substitutes "sympathetic" cardboard characters and "important statements." Instead of over-the-top black comedy, Teeth reads like a humorless feminist tract.

Yes, Teeth's front matter includes the usual blurbs of effusive praise, but the reviewer from Publishers Weekly confirms every fault I found in Teeth, so my assessment can't be completely out of line.

Teeth centers on Van Belkom's sad sack hero, an average Joe called ... Joe. Joe is a forty-something Canadian police detective assigned to find the vaginal killer. Teeth has been called "part police procedural" and I guess the investigation scenes are acceptable. But forget the investigation -- Joe has other matters on his mind. Personal issues he grapples with throughout his investigation. His beloved wife is dead. He frets that his daughter, Melissa, won't attend college; she wants to backpack across Europe and work on a kibbutz.

Fortunately, Joe is an Oprah kind of guy. He is surrounded by wise women, and he is wise enough to listen. Joe learns that his late wife supported Melissa's independent-mindedness, as Melissa knows what's best for herself.

Joe comes to understand the barriers of his previous uncommunicativeness, and that he must learn to open up and share. Melissa educates Joe about the hole in the ozone, and Joe is wise not to use his car air conditioner. Joe learns that a secretary who looks like a ditsy bimbo is really smarter and stronger than she appears (its her outwardly respectable male CEO boss who turns out to be the sleazy fool). And a world-weary waitress (who attends night school, much to Joe's admiration) recounts the sad story of her failed marriage to the creep who ran out on her.

There sure are lots of male creeps out there, which is one of the many life lessons Joe comes to appreciate. Teeth is less about a vaginal serial killer than about Joe's journey of discovery, his consciousness-raising about the lying sleaziness of men, and the women who survive them.

Publishers Weekly correctly states: "Flat writing and characterization on top of crudely exaggerated male and female sexual polarities don't win van Belkom  any prizes for style or subtlety."



Van Belkom might protest that in expanding his short story (which Teeth originally was), it was necessary to "flesh out" his tale with related themes. That a short story's "have sex and die" formula makes for a poor novel. True enough. But instead of seamlessly weaving his themes into the fabric of the novel, Van Belkom has clumsily grafted them on in a manner that violates the fundamental rule of "show, don't tell."

The high-school-age Melissa lectures to Joe: "Is it so much to ask a woman to wait for a man who joins the navy? To wait for a man who goes to an American school on a scholarship? Who takes a job in a foreign country? I don't think there's anything wrong with the man waiting for the woman, except the fact that some people can't accept that gender roles are being reversed more often these days."

It's not that there's anything inherently wrong with Melissa's points. On the contrary, Van Belkom belabors the obvious (if he hopes to be daring, he's 30 years too late). Teeth is annoying less for its stance (though I disagree with its ozone hole theory) than with its sledgehammer approach. The male victims are not merely sexist, they are sexist caricatures. Worse, they are unfunny caricatures. The Yang side of what Publishers Weekly called Teeth's "crudely exaggerated male and female sexual polarities."

Van Belkom must have sensed that flaw, because he makes a weak attempt to compensate: through more telling, not showing. Seeking to profile his killer, Joe consults Ellen "the Sex Lady" Grant, a fiftysomething radio psychobabbler who lectures a caller about the good men who work in women's shelters and rape crisis centers (thereby simultaneously reminding us of the evil that men do).

Lectures can be appropriate, as when characters reveal facts unknown to most readers. And dialogue inappropriate in a dramatic novel may be appropriate in satire. But Teeth eschews satire. A big mistake, because a funny book would have carried its message to a wider audience. Instead, Teeth's humorless assertions limit its appeal to those in search of a tract. Perhaps an editor convinced Van Belkom to expand his gory little story into something "important." In any event, Teeth fails as a novel.

As Publishers Weekly said: "The best part of this lurid horror novel from Canadian van Belkom is the prologue, originally a short story ... In extending this idea to novel length the author betrays its limits."



I think the premise had potential as a novel, but Publisher's Weekly is correct in that Van Belkom fails to realize it. Aside from the telegraphed messages, his one-dimensional characters make for predictable events, destroying all suspense.

At one point, Melissa brings home a Mr. Perfect (as defined by what feminists call "the traditionalist patriarchy"). He's a law student, well on his way to yuppie success. The oafish Joe is thrilled. But the wiser Melissa has reservations.

From the moment Mr. Perfect was introduced, I knew -- I just knew! -- he was scum. Suit and tie. Respectful to Joe. Career-oriented. A Shining Knight in Armor. A true Prince. You don't find those in feminist tracts. And sure enough, this exemplar of patriarchal perfection rapes Melissa. And to underline just how scummy he is, he insists "she wanted it." He's not a character; he's a caricature.

As Publishers Weekly said: "A subplot involving the fate of Williams's overly independent daughter doesn't stray from its predictable path."

Teeth is so predictable, I also guessed (early on) that the vaginal killer would go free. Her male victims are so obnoxious that even the non-rapists among them "deserve" to die. Consensual sex is no excuse for being a man.

But even that might have been acceptable -- if Teeth were funny. Obnoxiousness is enough to merit death in Tales From the Crypt, because the Cryptkeeper has a wry sense of dark humor. We don't take him seriously, so we suspend judgment. We accept that his "characters" are really satirical caricatures of greed, lust, sexism, infidelity, or other vices.

But Teeth is humorless.



Another saving grace would have been an interesting villain. Great horror features great villains. But despite her vaginal teeth, Teeth's serial killer is remarkably prosaic. A thinly sketched nothing.

Van Belkom might counter that he reveals little about the killer so that her eventual revelation would be a surprise. That might be appropriate for a mystery, less so for horror. But even as a mystery, Teeth is boring. In any event, the effect is to lessen our interest in her, and decrease tension.

As Publishers Weekly said: "[T]he delayed revelation of the remarkably equipped killer's identity is embarrassingly unconvincing."

Teeth also suffers sloppy editing, resulting in contradictory elements. For instance, Joe examines leather S&M gear in Ray Markham's (the first victim) apartment. Joe thinks: "What kind of man had made use of the place from time to time. An asshole, Joe concluded. A fucking creep. How else could you describe a guy who could pose with kids in wheelchairs over at the hospital and then drive across town and chain women to his bed so he could beat them with leather?"

But how does Joe deduce that Markham would "chain women to his bed so he could beat them with leather?" The evidence contradicts deduction. Ray's corpse is found tied to a bed, indicating he was a masochist -- not a sadist.

Of course, Joe knows that Ray was a sadist because Van Belkom knows it. And Van Belkom planted the knowledge into Joe's head, despite planting contradictory evidence in the scene.




I reviewed an "advance uncorrected proof" so it's possible this error was corrected in the final copy. But unlikely, be cause this is not a typo, but an editorial error. Considering all the blurbs of praise from other authors (who supposedly read Teeth), it's remarkable no one caught this error.

I share the perplexity of Publishers Weekly, which states: "This book will titillate young readers eager for sensation and will repel their elders, who should know better but may not. After all, several horror notables ... supply ringing endorsements."

One horror author blurbs Teeth as "over-the-top sexual horror," but really, Teeth is less daring than Clive Barker's Books of Blood, written some 20 years earlier. Lacking Van Belkom's usual dark wit, Teeth's sex and gore never rise above prosaic splatterpunk. What could have been gonzo over-the-top satire, is instead a dreary Oprah-fied domestic drama.

"Bum Rap" has potential. If Van Belkom expands it into a novel, one hopes he'll forego "seriousness" and concentrate on its inherent twisted humor.


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