In the kitchen of the house that should not be there, Osseous builds a sandwich. Resting on top of the icebox, picking at a bowl full of grains, Calcifer keeps them company.
The crow considers his companion. “Hey, Oz,” he says, between morsels. “Can I ask you something?”
“By all means.”
“How do you—” Calcifer pauses, thinking of a polite way to ask. As with most things in his life, he opts for the most direct route. “How do you eat?”
“Ah,” says the skeletal librarian, with a tilt of the cranium. “That’s a bit too personal, I fear.”
Calcifer croaks. “Yeah, I guessed.”
The man stumbles in, then. He hasn’t been seen out of his chambers for days now. His beard is longer and wilder and the dark hair on his head sticks out in every which way. He opens a cabinet, taking out a handful of containers and jars before asking Osseous to pass a couple slices of bread. He makes a hasty, haphazard sandwich that he promptly scarfs down.
“Clowns,” the man mumbles, mid-bite. “It’s probably going to be clowns. Two tales with them in a row. Can’t be coincidence. Best be on the lookout.”
Calcifer looks up from his bowl with interest, hoping either of them will elaborate, but the man offers nothing further and Osseous simply nods in understanding. Frustratingly, they have yet to take a bite of their sandwich — it sits whole on a plate in front of them. The librarian enjoys their meals in private.
The man makes another hurried sandwich before taking his leave, going back up the stairs, back into the deeper gloom of the house.
“What was that all about, then?” Calcifer asks.
“The month wanes and the veil withers along with it,” offers the Keeper.
“Osseous. Please. Talk prose.”
“Those in the Dark Beyond cannot yet pass,” Osseous says. “But the door is ajar enough that some of their appetent power is able to slip through, furiously intent on stopping those who work to prevent their arrival.”
“Stop us how, though?” asks the crow. Calcifer isn’t quite sure when he started to consider himself part of us, but he doesn’t particularly care to question it, either.
“These forces can take form, often particular to the craft they seek to crush. Those sent to hunt Readers may take the shapes of certain elements from the stories being engaged.”
“So,” the crow says, nodding upwards, “because he’s reading about maniac killer clowns we could, at some point, be stalked by maniac killer clowns ourselves.”
“That’s a little reductive,” says Osseous. “But yes, in essence.”
Calcifer sighs, covering his head with a wing. “Please tell me you’re joking, Osseous.”
“I fear not, friend.”
“Yeah, I guessed.”
“I retire to my meal,” Osseous says, picking up their plate. “There are mechanisms in place against attacks here,” the Keeper adds, pausing at the threshold. “I wouldn’t dwell on it too deeply.”
“Sure, sure,” Calcifer says, distracted. He’s looking out the kitchen window, not sure whether the shapes he now sees are real or the product of a stimulated imagination instead. He fluffs up and shakes his feathers. Bowl in beak, he flies out of the kitchen.
And so when the tall, gaunt figures with red eyes and clawed hands step out from behind the trees and start trudging towards the house, Calcifer doesn’t see.
Thrilling and thought-provoking in equal measure. Clown in a Cornfield 2: Frendo Lives, much like the first novel, is a cultural commentary as much as it is a horror story. That first book was written and released right in the middle of the MAGA era, and its story of prejudice and generational conflict was very much a direct reaction to — and reflection of — that particular point in time. Frendo Lives was released a mere two years later, to a landscape that, for better or for worse, has irrevocably changed. It’s a strange and baffling new world, but one that Cesare once again manages to deftly navigate with a story about the malleability of truth, media manipulation, and the dangers of mob mentality. These are stories where the true horror comes, not from preternatural bogeymen or relentless murderers, but from social conduct instead. That there is also a murderous figure in a crumbling clown costume at the center of them is really just set dressing.⠀
But it’s this vestigial villainous visage from the first book that illustrates one of the more interesting things this novel does, in that it has it become an image and an idea around which a cult is formed. It’s a frightening notion, and the fact that it feels somehow entirely plausible and realistic is nothing if not disturbing and really says a hell of a lot about our current cultural climate. (That this cult is largely composed of ignorant, ill-informed “fake news” fools only adds to the realism.) (Cesare is not subtle, and neither am I.)
Curiously, this cult concept also represents the weakest aspect of the book. While I appreciate its verisimilitude, the odious group only amounts to a couple of lackluster action set pieces — especially when compared to those in the first novel, which was brimming with harrowing spectacle. I also had an issue with the plot seemingly not knowing what to do with its protagonists, who spend much of the story reacting exasperatedly to it instead of driving it forward. It’s very odd. I like their general characterization, and the way they deal with their shared trauma reads true for the most part, but having them be basically blasé towards all the chaos around them took a lot of the edge out. At no point did I feel like the main cast was in any real danger — again in sharp contrast to the first novel, where literally every single character felt up for grabs.
Still though, this was interesting and a lot of fun. Cesare continues to slice at social tensions with gleeful, surgical precision, and I’m more than willing to continue bearing witness to his procedures.