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wrestling / Columns

411 Book Review: Dungeon of Death: Chris Benoit and the Hart Family Curse by Scott Keith

November 6, 2008 | Posted by Ryan Byers

Dungeon of Death: Chris Benoit and the Hart Family Curse is the fifth wrestling-related book from Scott Keith, the stalwart smark who built his name on rec.sport.pro-wrestling, Rantsylvania, and even 411mania before transferring his efforts to printed pages and his own personal blog.

Between the various mediums in which he has participated, Keith has over ten years of experience writing about professional wrestling. Unfortunately, absolutely none of that experience appears to have been applied in composing Dungeon of Death.

The book’s problems fall within two major categories. The first is that for the life of him Keith seemingly could not decide what sort tome he actually wanted to write. He clearly does not have a well-defined audience in mind, and his grasp on the theme of the book is even looser. The second set of major issues all stem from the fact that, even though he appoints himself an expert, Keith apparently has little to no understanding of the subject matter that he has reported on for so long.

The fact that the author was unable to decide what sort of book he wanted to write is evident from the second that the reader compares the cover and the title to the content. Chris Benoit, who last year became the world’s most infamous professional wrestler, adorns the cover and has his name prominently listed in the subtitle. The introduction and first chapter seemingly set up a book that heavily discusses Benoit and how the tragedy that ended his family’s lives dovetails with the other tragedies that dot the professional wrestling landscape. However, within fourteen pages, Keith’s overview of Benoit’s life comes to an abrupt end and gives way to a series of biographies of other wrestlers who passed through Stu Hart’s Stampede Territory and then either passed away or met with some other unfortunate end. When the book seemingly does right itself and get back to Benoit, it is only for a paltry conclusion, half of which is not even written by Keith himself but instead cribbed from the much more eloquent James Denton.

Readers wishing for a book about Chris Benoit, the man around whom this release is being promoted, will be severely disappointed . . . particularly if they were looking for Keith’s perspective and not Denton’s. Instead, Dungeon of Death reads like a very rough draft of collection of miniature essays on Stampede alumni which was rushed in to production and had a handful of Benoit chapters slapped on to it in order to engage in the sickest kind of murder-based profiteering.

Keith’s poor grasp on what he is writing doesn’t stop there. It seems as though he was completely without direction as to whether he was writing for casual wrestling fans or individuals who have the same level of knowledge about the industry that he does. Names like “Tiger Mask” and “Great Sasuke” are bandied about in certain chapters as though anybody holding the book should know of their significance, while just a few pages later Keith takes an aside to explain the mechanics of in-ring action just in case his readers “don’t know how wrestling moves work.” Given that just about any American professional wrestling fan who already knows the significance of Sayama and Sasuke will also have a fairly firm grasp on the ins and outs of how matches are worked, Keith is either writing over his audience’s head in one instance or talking down to them in the other depending on what the book’s readership is supposed to be. Examples of this phenomenon are peppered throughout the pages of Dungeon of Death, as Keith fails to explain what the term “the book” means the first time it is used but provides a definition in the second instance. He also makes an offhand comment about Scott Hall and Kevin Nash jumping to WCW from the WWF without describing why that event was significant despite the fact that he goes in to much more detail describing much less important events in wrestling history.

Perhaps the most bizarre trend in the book is the author’s switching back and forth between an attempt at a serious discussion of the seedy underbelly of professional wrestling and trite recaps of wrestlers’ careers. The chapter on Bret Hart provides the most notable example, as ninety percent of the content in it focuses on the Hitman’s in-ring accomplishments. Great Bret matches are listed, championship victories are discussed as though they were legitimate accomplishments, and absolutely nothing is presented that a fan couldn’t figure out by reading Hart’s profile on Wikipedia. Then, out of nowhere, Keith slaps one final paragraph on the chapter in which he (poorly) waxes poetic about the abrupt and unfortunate demise of the career of the Excellence of Execution. The pattern makes it feel as though the author truly did have some feelings on his fallen heroes that he wished to share, only for him to later realize that those feelings did not provide him with enough raw material to fill a 200 page book. The career retrospectives, as a result, look like nothing more than filler that Keith drummed up after a few late night internet searches in order to ensure he could meet his publisher-provided quota of pages.

As previously noted, Dungeon of Death‘s flaws are not confined to those related to the fact that the author seemingly had no clue what he wanted to write or who he was writing for. There is an entire second class of major issues with the writing, all stemming from the fact that Keith apparently does not understand the three major topics of his book.

Obviously there is a fair amount of discussion of drug use throughout the book, and its pages are also replete with examples of Keith’s lack of understanding of the topic. Perhaps his biggest blunder is noting that it would be impossible to determine whether Chris Benoit was taking steroids at the time of his death because there was no urine in the body to test. This completely ignores toxicology reports issued after Benoit’s death and made widely available on the internet, which indicated that, at the time of his death, he had a testosterone to epitestosterone ratio of over fifty to one. This clearly indicated that steroids were being used. Yes, Keith is correct in that a standard piss test may not have been conducted, but there is still clear evidence of what the Canadian Crippler was putting in to his body within his final days and weeks on Earth.

Perhaps equally as ridiculous is Keith’s wavering back and forth as to whether one can pick a steroid user out of a lineup by his “look.” In one chapter, he notes that it is almost impossible for the Big Bossman to have been a steroid user because, if he was, he would have had a better body. Yet, in a different chapter, Keith refers to Shawn Michaels and Bret Hart as guys who didn’t look like they were on steroids but probably were. Given that drug suspensions are currently a matter of public record and given that Scott does in fact have an internet connection and access to numerous professional wrestling websites, one would think that he would be able to figure out that not everybody who takes steroids looks like Dave Batista. After all, Jimmy Yang and William Regal both recently failed WWE wellness tests, and neither has the body that most would associate with rampant drug use. However, despite this evidence to the contrary, the author still at least partially seems to cling to the outdated notion that the second a man shoves a syringe in to his keister he swells up and develops a Herculean physique.

Not understanding drugs when writing a book about them is rather sad. Worse, though, is writing a book about professional wrestling and not understanding many aspects of it, particularly after following the sport for decades and writing about it in other media for almost fifteen years. Sadly, minor factual errors have almost come to be accepted in books about the mat game. However, in many ways Keith takes things to a new level by committing numerous gaffes, any one of which could have been corrected by a semi-competent fact-checker. For example, early in the book he claims that the co-promoted WCW/AAA pay per view event When Worlds Collide was Chris Benoit’s breakthrough in the United States and the performance that got him his job in ECW. Unfortunately, Benoit had already been already been competing in ECW for months when the AAA show took place. In fact, the day before the pay per view, Benoit had his infamous match with Sabu in which the homicidal maniac’s neck was broken.

Sillier still is Keith’s claim that the Chris Benoit and Kevin Sullivan feud spurred on the birth of hardcore in professional wrestling. This ignores completely the fact that ECW’s hardcore movement preceded and in some ways set the stage for the Benoit/Sullivan matches. Further still, it ignores the fact that ECW’s hardcore style was cribbed almost entirely from Japanese promotion FMW. Going back even further, it ignores the fact that FMW’s street fights were lifted from the wild brawls in the old Memphis territory that Atsushi Onita observed while touring in the United States. Even if all of the above history is ignored and it is argued that Keith meant Benoit/Sullivan matches were the first exposure for hardcore in the “big two,” his statement still ignores the similar (and perhaps even wilder) matches including names like Cactus Jack, Maxx Payne, and the Nasty Boys which took place at least a year prior to the Rabid Wolverine and the Taskmaster locking horns.

For the sake of not turning what is meant to be a brief review in to a thirty-page manifesto detailing Dungeon of Death‘s factual inaccuracies, the list will end here with a simple notation that, when it comes to professional wrestling, Keith is either far less knowledgeable than his decade of writing experience would lead one to believe or cares so little about his published works that he is willing to allow them to reach the masses while full of major errors regarding commonly known matters.

Yet, when compared to his lack of understand of drugs and his lack of understanding wrestling, the author’s apparent lack of understanding of death and sexism is the saddest of all, as these are the subjects of the book which he and others are most likely to encounter in day to day life.

This issue first manifests itself with small comments which underlie the fact that either Keith would rather make bad jokes than seriously discuss the major topic of his book or that he simply doesn’t think before he writes. One such comment comes when he writes that Owen Hart couldn’t defy death as well as he could defy gravity. Though obviously meant as a play on Owen’s high flying ring style, it should leave a bad taste in the mouth of any fan with half a brain, as, upon reading it, one immediately realizes that the exact reason that Owen failed to defy death is because he could not defy gravity. The second such comment falls in the middle of Keith’s biography of Yokozuna, as he claims that the 1994 Royal Rumble angle involving the Undertaker being jumped by twelve heels and ascending to the heavens made it hard to be a wrestling fan. Yes, in the middle of a book about numerous individuals dropping dead under the age of forty, many more engaging in practices which will lead them down that road, and a small child being murdered by his wrestler father, a somewhat cartoonish angle is what Scott Keith thinks makes it hard to be a wrestling fan. At least he has his priorities straight.

Then again, this is the same man who wrote that a particular wrestler was “destined to wind up dead” (you know, because every other human being on the planet earth isn’t), so perhaps the reader should not be surprised.

The painfully inane comments do not stop there. Miss Elizabeth’s character in the WWF is referred to as a “symbol of female empowerment.” Apparently the definition of “empowerment” employed in dictionaries in Keith’s homeland of Canada involves being a stereotypically demure Southern belle who cowers every time that her psychotic, abusive boyfriend makes the slightest move in her direction and continues to go back to him no matter how poorly she is treated. Elizabeth was a lot of things, and she created many fond memories for professional wrestling fans, but, as far as symbols of female empowerment go, she ranks right up there with the “Math is hard!” edition of Barbie and the silicone-laden half of the cast of Baywatch.

Perhaps most disturbing is Keith’s comment that Brian Pillman’s ex-girlfriend, with whom he had a rocky relationship, killed herself as a form of revenge against Pillman. Yes, there is some need to be melodramatic when writing this sort of book. No, Scott Keith is not a psychoanalyst, nor should he necessarily have to be one in order to write about this subject. However, such a statement displays a complete and utter ignorance of the reasons why people actually tend to commit suicide. It is generally not the rational, calculated act of revenge that Keith paints it as being but rather the act of an individual so racked with some form of mental illness that he or she cannot understand the true gravity of his or her act. Again, Scott Keith does not need to have a perfect understanding of the topic of suicide to write a handful of sentences about one person who committed it over a decade ago. However, serious examination of the topic for a few minutes would lead him to discover that even a stretch of the truth would not make that statement an accurate one.

That lack of examination underscores the sloppiness that permeates Dungeon of Death. Perhaps it was due to tight deadlines. Perhaps it was due to apathy. Perhaps it was simply due to lack of talent. However, no matter the cause, the end result is a book the likes of which will hopefully never be seen again by the professional wrestling world. It is a book that struggles and ultimately fails to find an identity in many regards. It is a book that attempts serious discussion of three serious topics but falls flat on all three attempts due to the author’s inability to engage in the kind of critical thinking necessary to move beyond writing the occasional entertaining review of a television show. This is a book with very few positives and more negatives than could be listed in the four pages allotted for this review.

To paraphrase a line from Keith himself: Strongest recommendation to avoid.

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