Filler content gone underground

Another review from The Third Alternative #42:-

UNDERGROUND by CRAIG SPECTOR

Tor hb, 254pp, $23.95                                                                       

Custis Manor in Stillson Beach, VA, is one of the great houses of America’s south, its status as a site of special historic interest belying a brutal past in which the wealth and power of the Custis family was based on the slave trade. Back in the early 1980s a group of seven disaffected youths, collectively known as the Underground and among them rebellious younger son Josh Custis, broke into the Manor to hold a party, but fuelled by drugs and inner jealousy the event ended in tragedy, with one member dead and another missing, the rest haunted by visions of all the terrors they have seen.

In the present day and against a background of political unrest, with secret racist Duke Custis set to be elected Governor, the remaining members of the Underground receive a sign that the missing Mia is still alive, trapped in some other dimensional hell which can be accessed through Custis Manor. The group must return to rescue Mia, with the aid of black radicals intent on destroying the Manor, which represents all they loathe. But the danger is greater than anyone suspects; Silas Custis, the founder of the family’s fortune, made a deal with a voodoo shaman and his evil lives on in that other dimension, ruling over a slave empire with a ruthless hand, and to set things right his power must be broken and all the enslaved spirits set free. While black militants and Klan wannabes fight to the death, the Underground must face the ultimate evil.

Slavery, racial prejudice and politics lie at the heart of this book, giving it both a moral authority and adding meaning to the text, but at the same time necessitating some cumbersome info-dumps, such as the minor character whose history with the Klan and its affiliates is filled in at three times the page count it takes to actually dispose of him, and other characters as, for instance, the Stillson Beach Police Chief, whose sole purpose seems to be to wander in and out of the text filling in parts of the back story and adding a soupcon of historical perspective. All of this seems rather clumsy and could maybe have been handled better, while on rare (sore thumb) occasions the writing itself verges on parody of the kind of hippie jargon to which the characters would have been prone in their teens.

The books succeeds on so many other levels though, such as in its evocation of the Underground, people who were once rebels but have now lapsed into sedate respectability, forced to once again take up arms and try to rediscover some of the idealism that fired them in youth, and even more so when the back story of the Custis family is filled in, with old monster Silas and his career in evil rendered in terms that almost physically repel, with scenes of amorality and abuse that echo Morrison’s Beloved. The tension between the various factions also comes over very well, with the constant reminder that the allies of circumstance don’t always share the same ultimate ends, and Custis Manor itself is one of the more memorable haunted houses in Horror fiction, a place where the evil of the past permeates the very walls and the air which people breathe. There is convincing magic as well, the sense that the supernatural side of things has been carefully worked out and with an eye for internal consistency.

All of this is to the good, but it is in the last eighty or so pages, when the shit hits the fan, that this book comes into its own and Spector’s careful groundwork pays off, with riveting scenes of combat in this world and the next, a story that grips and excites the reader as the Underground must fight supernatural forces and evil humans both, all the while racing against the clock. It’s a showstopper, no doubt about that, with images of violence and supernatural mayhem that will linger in the mind, and the only sour note struck by a final touch of poetic justice that maybe the writer should have resisted.

Craig Spector’s novel deals with serious themes in an intelligent and mature manner, but without sacrificing entertainment on the altar of polemic.

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