Dark Silence by Rick Hautala

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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.

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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)