Dead to the World (1988) by J.N. Williamson

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There’s a jogging skeleton on the cover. A skeleton, jogging. Ah, but let’s not have the silly cover distract us too much. The novel inside is actually… not that bad.

A small phone sales company has been invited to a remote town in Indiana by a local research company to raise funds for a statue they want to put on the main square. Upon arrival the phone company men and women first meet the jogger who never stops (spoiler: he’s not really a skeleton, just creepy) and discover that the town doesn’t have any bars, all the restaurants serve only healthy foods, there are no graves at the cemetery and everywhere there are loudspeakers playing rock and heavy metal. And there are no children or old people, just 20- and 30-somethings.

J.N. Williamson wrote many, many books and most if not all of them came out in mass market paperbacks. It’s not too hard to see why, the man seemed to like his dashes and long sentences, punishing the grammar like it had committed some personal offence towards him. Perhaps a proofreader would’ve straigthened some of the eccentricities (and typos) out, but Leisure Books had probably already spent all of the budget on their garish covers.

The novel has a nice, disconcerting feeling for the early part: everything seems familiar, but nothing is normal. The main characters themselves are, of course, in opposition to all the local health nuts and soon enough the newcomers begin to fall by the wayside. Some leave, or try to leave, but mostly they die. Or something worse. But while they’re around, Williamson manages to make them surprisingly interesting. The main character, Wes, for instance, speaks in a strange Hoosier dialect and cracks some peculiarly bad jokes. He’s also not at all your average hero, but rather a shabby and somewhat shady character with some really bad business ideas. His partner in crime is Kenny, a fun-loving, easygoing communist. Thanks to these oddball rogues the novel manages to stay fun even when the doldrums set in.

The latter part of the novel drags, and the explanations about the marriage of science and magic and the inevitable confrontations with the villains seem forced. Throughout there are elements that don’t make any sense, and the villains’ motivations for their actions remain murky throughout. But there are some scenes which replicate the disconcerting feeling present at the beginning; the secret of the jogger, for example, is deliciously gruesome. As it is, a lot of the good is drowned in the filler. But the bones are solid stuff.

*** (3/5)