Dust Devils by Jonathan Janz

dustdevilsIt’s on from page one, and it doesn’t stop until it’s done. On a desert in 1880s New Mexico, a man called Cody and a boy named Willet spy a group of vampires feasting on some nice human barbecue. The vampires, travelling from town to town as a theatre troupe, have taken Cody’s wife; from Willet, they’ve taken his whole family.

We get the backstory bit by bit, but otherwise it’s nonstop action, told on the go; after a fight with the vampires, Cody and Willet try to head off the creatures at a nearby town. Soon enough the troupe shows up again, this time for a show at the local saloon. It’s not exactly Shakespeare these vampires perform, but the crowd does go wild. The final standoff at a ranch caps things off in a gory whirlwind of headshots, decapitations and torn arteries.

It’s not subtle, but hell if it isn’t effective. The action is very well paced – the 250-page novel goes past in a breeze – and there’s a sparkle to the language already familiar from writer Jonathan Janz‘s previous novels; in horror, perhaps only Robert R. McCammon manages to keep a story going with such constant energy. Only at the very end does the action begin to lag, as the aftermath goes on perhaps a few pages too long. But then again the reader might need a breather before returning to the real world, a gentle easing back from the adrenaline-fuelled heights.

Surprisingly, for such an action-packed story, the characters are drawn in some detail as well. Cody is a likeable man, whose already complex relationships with his wife, his father and young Willet get severely tested in the course of the novel, giving it all a strong emotional backbone. Marguerite, a saloonkeeper he meets in the town, comes with some baggage in her relationships as well, and their first meeting is a well executed sequence that happily defies the laymonian school of man-woman relationships, making it resound just that crucial little bit more.

The vampires – needless to say, not the Twilight kind – are bestial, but also eerily human; the western horror genre brings to mind Lance Henriksen‘s group in the movie Near Dark (1987; incidentally scripted by Eric Red, another Samhain author). The vampires aren’t calculating and cool, but temperamental, and when they lose their heads, well, they lose their heads. The familiar mythology does get a rewrite, but it’s nicely explained – the thespian vampires are, after all, professional liars.

The fifth novel by Janz, Dust Devils is plotwise concise and psychologically streamlined; it’s all muscle and heart. The small cast and the straightforward, nearly real-time storyline also help, giving the novel a wonderful immediacy and a fierce, kinetic energy that drives the narrative compulsively forward; for sheer speed, Dust Devils, pardon the pun, truly leaves many others in its dust.

****½ (4.5/5)

Published in February 2014 by Samhain Publishing. Visit the author’s site!

The Darkest Lullaby by Jonathan Janz

15814092The Darkest Lullaby by Jonathan Janz (Samhain, 2013) is a novel with a great beginning and a good finish, and a whole lot of nonsense in between.

The story goes as they always do: a couple, Chris and Ellie, inherit an old house, only to realize that they’ve gained more than just a decrepit piece of real estate. Located on a vast, forested tract of land somewhere in Indiana, the house used to be a center for a child-sacrificing coven of cultists.

The beginning of the novel reads like an unpublished script out of T.E.D. Klein‘s desk drawer (as a nod, the couple adopt a stray dog they call Petey). Rich in atmosphere, the house and the encroaching woods ooze with promise. Anything can happen. What primeval horror will come creeping out of the forest?

Nobody expects Richard Laymon. The husband, Chris, gets seduced by an apparition of his aunt Lillith, the previous owner of the house, who, as it happens, was not only a leading cultist, but also a sort of a vampire. Having sex with your aunt would probably make you crazy anyway, it certainly doesn’t help if she’s undead to boot.

Sadly, it’s downhill from here on in. The novel literally loses its plot after Chris goes bonkers and gets his creepy sex drive on. The sudden appearance of Ellie’s more glamorous sister doesn’t help, it only seems to result in more juvenile sexual tension. Small nonsensical things crop up, stealing the novel of its power. The scenes come and go, with a couple of graphic murders and casual grave digging thrown in for good measure, but they barely amount to anything.

The villain, Lillith, is certainly part of the problem. She seems to be there for the plot alone, not as a character in her own right. The novel doesn’t tell much about her, except that she tended to give Ellie the evil eye and partook in some unsavory bloodsucking. Her partner, a dog-loving, child-sacrificing Destragis is even less a character. The novel’s vampire mythology seems original, but it mostly confuses rather than clears things up. There are some hints that the forest itself is evil, but none of this history is adequately explored, leaving the book without a proper backbone.

As a side note, the title and cover of the novel seem slightly more baby-obsessed (in a Rosemary’s Baby kind of way) than the novel actually is. There is a pregnancy, to be sure, but its significance is lost somewhere in the confusion.

After the derailment the novel finds its groove again in the finale. It’s an atmospheric sendoff that works despite its innate ridiculousness. The open ending, with Ellie walking alone through the woods, leaves a nice, lasting image that could’ve crowned a great novel. But, unfortunately, it’s a badly uneven story that she leaves behind her.

*** (3/5)

The Sorrows by Jonathan Janz

12832819A satyr of Greek myths and legends haunts a secluded island in the debut novel by Jonathan Janz. Setting off with a quote from The Great God Pan (1890) by Arthur Machen, the Sorrows (2011, Samhain) proceeds to drag Pan’s horns and hooves into the 21st century with laymonian gusto. Interspersed with backstory from the 1920s, the novel follows a pair of present-day composers and their associates as they seek the solitude of the island to compose a film soundtrack for an upcoming horror movie.

The composers are horror hounds, looking for macabre places that set their creative juices flowing. The Sorrows, an island with an imposing mansion and shady history is the perfect site for such a venture. Ben is the more artistic of the two, while Eddie takes care of business. The two are accompanied by female consorts, Claire, a demure young woman, and Eva, a not-so-demure young woman. All have their own sorrows, some heavier than others.

Added to the mix is a multitude of secondary characters, who all eventually end up at the island for the sake of the plot. Before that, however, the composers and their ladyfriends go through the traditional motions of discovering that the haunted house is actually haunted. Not by ghosts, but by something worse. The journal entries from the 1920s tell the story of a previous owner who, for personal benefit, brought back to the island something he found in a Greek forest. That something grew up and was eventually locked up, but that wasn’t the end of the story.

The characters are affected by their stay in the house, they have vivid dreams or see ghosts from their own past. Some characters who are slightly unhinged to begin with become murderous, a scenario that has happened to various people in the past as well. It’s all apparently caused by the closeness of the Greek import, a lascivious, hooved creature that eventually turns up in the bowels of the house. Fighting, infighting, rape and destruction ensue, at a progressively harder tempo.

There is a lot of plot in the Sorrows. There is a lot of backstory as well, with each character bringing some trauma or other to the novel. There is a point where it all feels a little too much. A lot of the murderous impulses can be blamed on the creature’s effect, but still it seems slightly implausible that a such a great number of budding psychopaths would end up on the island simultaneously. The suspension of disbelief creaks in its joints especially towards the end, where threats come from left to right and characters that disappeared from the novel early on drop by to have a chat and a kill.

All the mayhem would be unbearable if it weren’t for the fluency with which Janz pulls it off. The chapters come in increasingly short, rapid fire bursts as the action increases. The different story strands themselves are mostly well constructed and realistic; my complaint is simply that there may be too many of them. Descriptions of sounds are used to great effect, whether the sounds are screams from behind a closed basement door or music from a bricked-up tower long after the person inside should have died.

The Sorrows feels like a love child of Arthur Machen and Richard Laymon; at its’ core it’s an almost poetic story of a being torn from time immemorial and placed in modern society. On the surface, however, it’s a sleazy action-fest with lurid sexual overtones. The imbalance may reflect the passing of time between the eras of Machen and Laymon, an effect accentuated by the past being seen only through elegantly written journal entries. Just saying, in reality it might’ve been as hot and heavy in the twenties, if not for the prudish journalkeeper. The Greek satyr itself is a black behemoth oozing lust and violence, an uncontainable force of nature, both a snarling beast and a victim of common human cruelty. Compared to the lot that visits the island, he doesn’t even seem all that bad.

**** (4/5)