The Lost Level, Brian Keene (Apex Book Company)
Reviewed by inmate Rosendo Rodriguez, Texas Dept. Corrections
When I was a little boy, I often accompanied my mother to the Kemp public library in my hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas, and would lose myself for hours among the rows of books that offered countless worlds of adventure. As most little boys are wont to do at that age, I immersed myself in anything having to do with robots and dinosaurs. As I grew into a teenager, I began to read books with more mature themes such as cowboy westerns, chock full of gunfights, and zombie novels that always ended horrifically for the very few survivors in post-apocalyptic wastelands. As a college student, I frequented the Texas Tech library for tales of the occult, aliens, UFOs, and Nazis, which were all subjects of strange fascination that I found to be both eerie and intriguing.
So, when I read The Lost Level by Brian Keene, it was as if the author decided to take all of the literature of my youth and weave them into a patchwork quilt of a delightfully strange novel. Though I am hard-pressed to define its particular genre, if forced I believe “Man Out of Time” or “Lost World” may best fit the bill. In The Lost Level, Keene pays a direct tribute to such novels as Edgar Rice Burrough’s Pellucidar, Joe R. Landsdale’s The Drive In, and Robert E. Howard’s Almuric, and yet at the same time, Keene gives the novel a present-day feel.
The main character, Aaron Pace, is the son of a minister who, as most ministes’s children often do, becomes disenchanted with Christian belief and develops a deep and abiding belief in the occult. After researching various esoteric tomes on the subject, he discovers a way to open “The Labyrinth,” a pathway that not only allows one to traverse to all the planets and galaxies in our universe, but also to different versions of them in alternate dimensions. People who travel the Labyrinth call such dimensions “levels’ and by utilizing occult rituals, they are able to access these levels where alternate realities take place, e.g., an America where the south won the Civil War or where humans evolve on Venus, etc.
During his research into these various levels, he finds mention again and again of a Lost Level, an independent dimension where life forms and things from all over the multiverse are tossed together and abandoned, and where the only exit is death. Despite ominous warnings against traveling there (and not to mention a healthy dose of bravado and stupidity), Aaron opens a gateway to the lost level by invoking a powerful and obscure god in a ritual (some will notice that is a slight wink to H.P. Lovecroft). The problem is that the gateway closes behind Aaron, leaving him trapped on the lost level; that is where the book takes a turn toward the bizarre.
Orienting himself the best he can, Aaron witnesses just how hostile the environment is with the insects, and even the very grass, proving to be deadly. He then comes across a band of reptilian lizardmen carrying several prisoners through the jungle. After a brief skirmish with lizardmen, Aaron frees Bloop, an intelligent bipedal, sword-swinging, catlike creature whose vocabulary consists of only one word: Bloop. Hence the name. And he frees Kasheena, a long-haired, big-breasted, bronze-skinned warrior beauty clad in only a loin cloth. Having nowhere else to go and seeking answers about the lost level, Aaron decides to accompany his new-found companions back to Kasheena’s village by trekking across unfamiliar and hostile land.
As one can quite imagine, the story becomes rather pulpy, but wonderfully and horrifically so. I am loathe to give too much more away because the complete randomness of the beings and objects and phenomena that Aaron, Kasheema, and Bloop encounter is the core mechanic of the story, and that is what makes The Lost Level so appealing.
Do you want robots and dinosaurs? This book has them. Cowboys and lizardmen? Check. Have you ever lost a single sock in the washing machine and, after not finding it, wondered where in hell that sock went? The Lost Level answers that question.
Yes, this book is that freaking weird, but an entertaining, delicious type of weird.
If I had to have one complaint about this book, and trust me it’s very difficult to do, it was too short at 164 pages. The final chapter leaves you with more questions than answers, and the unresolved plots and subplots set up an inevitable sequel, Return to the Lost Level, and a pre-sequel Hole in the World. Though I do not know when Keene will release the next books, whenever it is, it cannot be soon enough. Perhaps like Aaron, I’ll open a gateway to another level of existence and travel to a time where they are already available. Maybe then I can even find some of my damn socks.