Kane (1990) by Douglas Borton

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A man walks out of the Mojave desert and into a small town of Tuskett, California, a remote place with a population of 23 and already on palliative care since forever. The locals spy the newcomer, named biblically enough as Kane, with well-founded suspicion, and as night falls he starts to help them with guns and knives and bombs to move on from their sad little lives to kingdom come.

As Kane’s nocturnal carnage gets underway, Bill the mechanic, Rile the geriatric man and Jenny the single mom, among others, figure out Kane means business and begin to fight back. But Kane always seems to be several steps ahead.

Kane, our mean, tall, blue-eyed main man here, is something of a cousin of Flagg, Stephen King’s the man in black, and not only because of similar wardrobe habits or the western milieu. His reasons are mysterious, he’s just there to kill and kill again and he does it with great pleasure and skill. Is he Cain as told about in the bible, or something else supernatural, or someone avenging an event in the town’s history, or maybe even a federal worker sent to clean up an already disappearing dot on the map? Theories abound but nothing really sticks, the mystery holds.

Borton, also writing thrillers as Michael Prescott, began as a writer of horror, so Kane is one of his earlier works. The writing doesn’t show it. The action is tense and taut, and when things get nasty, oh boy, they drip with the good stuff, they are drenched to the core. Some of the kills are noticeably mean, but the writing never becomes callous or uncaring. Notably, all characters are also very well written; there’s a degree of difference here between Kane and something like James Herbert’s Rats, where the victims were basically triggers for the readers’ sympathy. In Kane, every character pushes several buttons at once, like real people might.

The spring-loaded first half, with the mysterious, blink-and-he’ll-pounce Kane is the best part, with some of the steam going out towards the end, when the story is reduced to a chase of kill or be killed. Kane’s not quite a lost masterpiece, but it’s a confident novel which knows and uses its strengths to a great effect. The smart, sharp writing elevates it to a level close to something by the aforementioned Stephen King, in glowing contrast to many of its paperback horror peers. A good one, this.

**** (4/5)