Night Stone (1986) by Rick Hautala


It’s the one with the hologram! Look, it’s a kid! Now it’s a skeleton! It’s a million copy bestseller, that’s what it is. The nearly 600-page novel beneath the small, shiny hologram proves that Zebra probably knew and cared more about marketing than editing.

The Inman family moves into Don the dad’s ancestral home in rural maine, a house which has been abandoned for a long time. Tenants never stay for long and its original owners the Kivinen family met with tragedy and death. Soon Don dreams of giant bleeding stones and finds an ancient severed hand possibly of Native American origin buried in the ground. Meanwhile, Beth the daughter finds and bonds with a creepy doll, always a bad sign, while Jan the wife tries her hand at waitressing and serves as the one normal person in the increasingly dysfunctional family trio.

The atmosphere is king here and Hautala gets it right from the start. The decaying but still habitable house and its sylvanian premises ooze some of that sweet New England backwoods magic, familiar from his other novels. Hautala uses his own Finnish roots as ingredients for the immigrant Kivinen family, adding a word of Finnish here and there for authencity (sadly there are some mistakes in grammar and spelling, but I guess checking stuff out in the pre-Internet age wasn’t as easy as it is today).

There’s something almost Lovecraftian in the way the ancient plot hides ancient secrets, which the increasingly obsessed Don digs out like a Nahum Gardner. University experts swoop in like their colleagues in The Colour Out of Space, and could those scratching sounds underground be Rats in the Walls? It’s a nice touch in a novel that otherwise follows the basic tenets of eighties horror 101, with even a cameo by a sex-obsessed voyeur teen familiar from anything by Richard Laymon.

But the novel meanders a bit and occasionally loses its focus, with the many different elements not quite coming together into an effective whole. At nearly 600 pages there’s a lot of excess, with some plotlines going nowhere and others getting abrupt endings. The finger of blame points accusingly at the editors at Zebra, but maybe they were busy with the hologram nonsense. The events do pick up pace towards the tragic conclusion, but getting there is often slow going.

The ending itself is as unhappy as it gets, with sadness and loneliness turned up to eleven. There’s something unmistakably Finnish and Scandinavian about it, with none of new world optimism at display. In the end Night Stone feels simultaneously too ambitious and not ambitious enough. But there might be the bones of a good novel buried somewhere deep beneath that gleaming, beckoning hologram.

*** (3/5)

Moondeath (1980) by Rick Hautala


The Finnish-American Maine-born author Rick Hautala, whose last name in the Finnish language actually has a grave in it, wrote many horror paperbacks for Zebra beginning this one, a werewolves in New Hampshire setup that subtly emulates that other horror author’s somewhat more successful “vampires in New England” premise. Still, that other author, one Stephen King, must’ve liked what he read since he provided a nice blurb for the cover and helped Hautala kickstart his career as a novelist.

Moondeath is drenched in smalltown atmosphere, with the main character, Bob the teacher, entering the community after a scandal drummed him out of Massachusetts. There’re the rednecks with their guns and their cars, a school with the bullies and the bullied, a librarian stuck in a marriage with a drunken lout and a promiscuous woman who moonlights as a witch. It’s through this witchcraft that the small hamlet begins to experience brutal killings attributed to a particularly large dog. Or a wolf.

The rate at which the bodies accumulate should probably shut down the town, but these New Hampshire folks were made of sterner stuff. Unlike in Jaws, they keep their town open for business and tourism. It’s not necessarily even a bad idea, since the dog/wolf/quadruped only seems to hunt and kill local people and Bob soon figures out who the culprit is.

a696d5c9-70fd-4da6-8051-c9295513944b.d33fb876a8ab6a8cf4e7d5056b97f0ddThe best part of Moondeath is its atmosphere. The beginning is solid stuff, the town and its inhabitants have a nice heft to them. Once the killings start the writing becomes more formulaic, especially dialogue. Hautala himself commented on his low self-esteem in his autobiography, and sadly it often shows, the writing isn’t nowhere near the gregariousness of early King, for example. The words and expressions feel tentative and at worst Hautala seems to resort to a sort of simplified moviespeak. Many of the characters also seem to lose their personalities to the overall narrative.

Despite its failings Moondeath is a passable debut novel. Although Hautala often seems timid and unsure as a writer, he does possess an admirable amount of enthusiasm, and that alone helps keep the story afloat for the duration; many scenes are filled with an almost childlike glee. Hautala doesn’t contribute anything radically new to the literary character of the werewolf, but as B-movie storylines go, this is as good as any.

*** (3/5)

Dark Silence by Rick Hautala

US paperback (Zebra)

The name’s a dead giveaway – it’s quiet horror in this 1992 novel by Maine’s foremost Finnish-American author. In the 17th century, a witch heading for the gallows curses the land around her. Later, a mill is built on the grounds, but by the 1960s it has long been abandoned. Two young brothers, Eddie and Mikie, enter the mill with a group of boys, only for one of them to get seriously injured in a fall. In the present day, Eddie’s son Brian and new wife Dianne discover what haunts the old mill.

Witches and ghostly voices abound, but the story’s about the living; the characters are haunted more by their fears and past actions than anything supernatural. Eddie himself carries guilt about the accident at the old mill, which saw one of his friends paralysed and Mikie sent to a mental asylum. Dianne has a near-fatal accident that echoes the fall at the old mill, and undergoes a painful recovery. Brian has difficulties with Dianne, probably simply because she’s his new stepmother and he’s a moody adolescent.

Current eBook cover (Crossroad Press)

The mentally unbalanced brother, Mikie, appears later in the novel as a minor threat, but Hautala manages to make his portrait a complex one, with shades of sympathy. This is the novel’s greatness; nobody in it is simply good or evil, even the witch and the spirits are mostly victims of bad circumstances. Surely this sort of depth and understanding is far above and beyond an average Zebra horror author’s paygrade.

Hautala’s mannerisms – the overuse of italics and exclamation! marks – are present, but unlike in Little Brothers they seem moderate, and don’t draw attention to themselves. Subtlety has clearly triumphed over cheap cheesiness.

However, one cannot escape the sense that Hautala had a quota to fill – most Zebra paperbacks are suspiciously uniform in size, about 400 pages. There’s some bloat in Dark Silence, especially in the latter half. But in the midst of this mass market excess there are the bones of a decent novel, with subtle characterisations and a vividly dark atmosphere.

**** (4/5)

Published in 1992 by Zebra Books. Currently available as an ebook from Crossroad Press. Visit the author’s site!

Little Brothers by Rick Hautala

littlebrothersThe woods of Maine hide a race of verocious small creatures in Little Brothers (1988), a novel by Rick Hautala. A promising idea ruined by its lacklustre execution, the novel’s cheesiness is its only saving grace.

The cast of characters is led by Kip Howard, a 12-year-old who was the lone witness to his mother’s death in the jaws of the creatures five years earlier. Kip alone knows the truth, everyone else including Kip’s father Bill thinks she was killed by roaming vagrants. The surviving family is completed by Kip’s older brother Marty, a teenager mostly interested in getting high. Added to the mix is a drunk Micmac indian with inherited knowledge about the untcigahunk, the “little brothers” of the title.

It should all work swimmingly. It doesn’t. The novel is a 500-page mess, with seemingly no structure or plan to any of it. The plot twists and stalls constantly. The characters are either mercurial, like Kip, or static one-note wonders, such as the alcoholic indian, John Watson. Some characters are introduced only to be forgotten, like Bill’s love interest, Gail. The creatures don’t offer much fun either, their rampage amounts to a few scratches on a windowsill, one dead dog and a couple of teens.

It wouldn’t be surprising if Hautala had made up the whole story on the go. He is a spirited writer though, and even when his ideas have clearly run dry, he still keeps on going with infectious energy. It does, however, get quite cheesy, with stock dialogue and an utterly preposterous finale, but excessive cheesiness does kind of have its own undeniable charm.

There are some grating mannerisms, such as the incessant use of exclamation marks! italics and… dramatic pauses! Both are overused so much that the novel feels more like a parody than a proper horror novel. The relationship between the brothers, Kip and Marty, may have been intended to supply gravitas to the story, but it only amounts to another wildly erratic subplot, coated in thick, greasy cheese.

* (1/5)