Tessier’s 1982 novel is all tease and little else; young Ned moves with his parents to a new town on the seaside, hangs out with some old geezers and has a fever dream. Somewhere along the way there are ominous hints about vague horrors… but they never really manifest themselves. Phantom isn’t just quiet horror; it’s mute as fuck.
It starts well, though, with a real-life health scare. But that’s all. A ridiculously long dungeon crawl in the middle of the slim novel brings an already glacial pace to a standstill; and to really batter the reader into a coma, the novel soon presents the reader with another dungeon crawl with very little variation.
Now the quality of writing here is excellent, there’s no question about that; but after a while it gets increasingly difficult to enjoy a novel that constantly keeps baiting the reader, yet never goes anywhere.
My disappointment is possibly multiplied by high expectations: Tessier has a great rep, the coming-of-age genre rarely fails, and the US paperback cover has a vague folk horror feel that is utterly absent in the novel itself. On the other hand, quiet horror is an acquired taste, and if it doesn’t tickle your fancy, it just comes across as so much pointless noodling. And Phantom is a stellar case in point.
Ned’s fever dream at the end, with all its surrealism, is slightly reminiscent of H.C. Andersen‘s fable The Story of a Mother. A fine piece of horror, that one. Phantom, well…
Originally published in 1982. Available in multiple editions.
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.
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.
Published in 1992 by Zebra Books. Currently available as an ebook from Crossroad Press. Visit the author’s site!
Frankenstein meets The Great God Pan in a story that spans a lifetime of two men; the fates of young Jamie Morton and reverend Charlie Jacobs become intertwined when the latter becomes the town’s new reverend. Affable and easygoing, he’s liked by everyone – until he loses his family in an accident and angrily renounces God.
But there’s a new god waiting in the wings for the good old reverend: electricity. While we follow Jamie’s exploits (first love, first band, drug addiction, calm middle age), Jacobs uses his growing knowledge to go from a reverend to a carnival attraction to a spiritual healer, and later cures Jamie from his addiction. But some of Jacobs’ patients and test subjects begin to experience strange side effects, giving clues about Jacobs’ ultimate goal: to look beyond the veil of reality.
It’s straight out of Arthur Machen, the man credited in CAPITALS on the first page of the book; the final patient is even called Mary, just like in Machen’s story. But it’s mostly seasoning; structurally the novel is familiar King territory, reminiscent of From a Buick 8 or Joyland (there are many references to that novel’s carnival vocabulary). And on his home turf, King is undeniably the best there is. Revival is a great yarn, full of nostalgia and experiences that ring true. King’s characterisations are always above and beyond most in horror fiction.
But the seasoning can sometimes overwhelm the more astute reader. There’s the (silly) namechecking of certain mythos tomes, such as Robert Bloch‘s De Vermis Mysteriis or even the (bloody) Necronomicon. Perhaps King is having fun at the fanboys’ expense (others probably won’t even notice), but such references went out of style already back when August Derleth was churning out Lovecraftian pastiches.
The ending, or the great revelation of what waits us beyond death, is straight-up cosmic horror: death is no escape, only a doorway to something worse. The reader gets a small glimpse of the thing clawing out of Mary’s mouth, and it’s just enough – the reader’s imagination will take care of the rest. And the wave of suicides and murders in the wake of the final event echo Call of Cthulhu with its communal madness. There’s a lot of excellent ideas beneath the surface, even if the surface occasionally feels a bit too pleasant – King’s homespun horror stylings are perhaps too cosy and sane for all-out Lovecraftian horror. Even with the grumbles, Revival is a great novel, with a wonderful, solid emotional core.
Published in 2014 by Scribner. Visit the author’s site and get the new novel Finders Keepers (out in June)!
McCammon’s new novel The Border is out very soon from Subterranean Press, but here’s where it all began back in 1978; Baal is a very concise, pulpy and epic horror novel on a global scale, told in three acts.
Things kick off in seventies’ grimy America, as the future mom of the demon gets attacked on the street. She’s saved in the nick of time, but gets strange burn marks all over her body. Later, she gets pregnant by her husband and gives birth to an obviously evil baby boy. When the father tries to drown the titular demon-to-be, the mother kills him. The kid gets shuffled off to a series of orphanages. As he grows older, he adopts the name Baal and starts messing with the nuns and the priests, and turns his fellow orphans into disciples.
The second act moves the events to Kuwait, where people are going bananas over a mysterious religious leader. A theologist, Donald Naughton, goes to investigate and disappears. His colleague, James Virga, goes looking for Naughton and discovers that a now grown-up Baal is the one to blame for all the hubbub. He finds a helping hand in Michael, who seems to know a thing or two about what’s going on.
After a fake assassination attempt, Baal disappears, and Virga and Michael track him to Greenland for the final act. They find him and start skiing to the ocean. A cosmic battle between good and evil follows, with Virga the only survivor.
There’s an infectious energy to the novel; it’s bursting at the seams, the short length barely able to contain all the ideas. The first two thirds are excellent, with the first part echoing such classic horror as The Omen or Rosemary’s Baby. The second part in Kuwait is the high point, suffocating and claustrophobic, predating Dan Simmons‘ similarly atmospheric Song of Kali by more than half a decade. There’s also a spark of genius in keeping Baal out of the picture for most of the action, with the increasingly tumultuous events being observed through the eyes of outsiders Naughton and Virga.
But after Kuwait, there should’ve been more. Baal’s barely made his grand entrance when he fakes his own assassination and goes into hiding. The scenes in Greenland are good and the milieu’s great, but it’s almost as if the novel is running out of steam by that point. It lumbers to its inevitable conclusion, but after all the excellent set-up, Baal kind of goes out with a whimper.
It’s obvious Baal was McCammon’s first novel, written when he was only 25 years old, and for a time he kept it out of print (along with several other early ones) for that very reason. Baal is nowhere as well-developed or evenly told as, for instance (my favourite) They Thirst, but it has its merits. The youthful exuberance of it all makes it a joyous read, and even back then, McCammon’s brisk use of language was in evidence. The Kuwait chapters alone are worth the visit. Baal doesn’t quite reach the dizzy heights it aspires to, but it makes a great effort, and in doing so points the way for McCammon’s later novels. A brave first novel.
Young Dennis Wheatley, later known for his occult novels such as The Devil Rides Out, arrives in the United States to consult on a film shoot together with renowned escape artist Harry Houdini. It’s all very pleasant, with carnival freaks (cf. Tod Browning’s 1932 film) and all, but then actresses get murdered and various hijinks ensue, culminating at a lake that serves as a center of worship for local loonies. Or something.
It’s all very confusing. The plot lacks purpose; after the somewhat clever beginning the novel seems to implode into a series of incoherent scenes, with the characters rambling around Dunwich (now a major city, apparently) until a strange whimper of an ending. The choice of characters is clever, and combining silent film with a Great Old One created by Ramsey Campbell just screams perfection; but there’s no progression, no sense of menace, no plot to follow. It’s all padding, with a few neat names thrown in the mix.
Oddly, the association with the Arkham Horror board game is the least of the novel’s problems; the only glaring sign of the game seems to be the appearance of PI Joe Diamond, who naturally comes across as that much cardboard. Diamond seems almost glued-on to the novel, perhaps a late editorial addition to beef up the already far-stretched contents?
Some of the novels in the Arkham Horror line have been quite good fun; unfortunately, The Sign of Glaaki, despite having possibly the best premise, falls flat.
This blog has been on pause for a while, mostly because I was working on my comic book (you can see the cover above). The book is now out and available! (and therefore I will also resume this blog)
Not surprisingly, “1986” is a horror story – it begins as a ghost story, then becomes a decidedly Stephen King style coming-of-age story. The year in the title is no coincidence, it’s the year of IT and Stand by Me, among others. Other than eighties horror, the story pays tribute to the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game. The game’s sanity loss mechanism plays a big role.
If you wish to support the blog, or if you’re just curious about the book, you can buy it directly from me (contact me and I’ll give you the instructions). The cost is a mere £8 (or $10) and the price includes shipping worldwide.
An engine failure leaves a group of white middle class youths stranded in the worst part of Philadelphia. As a black gang approaches their vehicle, the youths panic and run head over heels into an abandoned building. The door slams shut, a degenerate giant with his giant hammer appears, and heads get splattered.
The giant is just the tip of the iceberg; soon the surviving youths find themselves dodging deformed midgets, a man wearing the skin of a woman, and other assorted horrors. The house is a trap, designed to capture prey for the race of creatures that live in the cave system beneath it. And that’s where the youths learn the exit is, so down they go, into the bowels of the earth.
The long, meandering dungeon crawl that follows is straight up death metal, early Cannibal Corpse style. The plot gets lost somewhere in the darkness, as do the youths, stumbling along from horror to horror. It’s a constant barrage of gloriously obscene vileness, all mood and atmosphere. The subterranean caverns are another world, and it’s been there for ages; there’s a hint of perverse grandeur to the revelation, reminiscent of Lovecraft‘s The Rats in the Walls.
While the youths are preoccupied with the horrors, the gang outside – good people, as it turns out – rallies the neighbourhood to help them. The urban setting is a refreshing change from the usual rural cannibal fare (Laymon, Ketchum, et al), rooting it firmly in the real world and its real problems.
In the end it all feels like an introduction to a larger whole, a mere scratch on the surface; but it’s a deep, nasty, wonderfully festering scratch.