Further to last Thursday’s post, three more reviews and the second part of a feature on American publisher Leisure that originally appeared in Black Static #7:-
HORROR, TWICE MONTHLY: A LEISURE FEATURETTE (continued)
Ghost Walk (Leisure paperback, 275pp, $7.99) by Brian Keene is a sequel of sorts to his earlier Dark Hollow, with which it shares at least one character and a setting in the legend haunted woods of LeHorn’s Hollow. It is not however necessary to have read the first book to enjoy this, though at the end you’ll probably want to.
Ken Ripple is organising a ghost walk in advance of Halloween, as a tribute to his dead wife and charity fundraiser. With its sinister history LeHorn’s Hollow seems the ideal place to hold such an event, but unbeknown to Ken there is more than a little truth behind the stories about these woods, and now a lone hunter in the forest has broken an ancient barrier and allowed an alien entity to establish a foothold in our world. On the night of Halloween, when the walls between the worlds are at their weakest, Nodens will cross over completely and bring an end to all life. The only ones aware of the danger and with any hope of averting a catastrophe for mankind are journalist Maria and powwow magician Levi.
As far as the plot goes, this plays out like a cross between Laymon’s The Midnight Tour and the cosmic horror of H P Lovecraft. The events leading up to Halloween, all the trials and tribulations of setting up a ghost walk, are carefully detailed and bring a down to earth, fun feel to the story, with the demise of individual characters something that is going on in the background and doesn’t really impinge on Ken Ripple and his helpmates, at least at first. Gradually the tension builds and with it the sense that these people are fiddling while Rome burns. Ultimately though, all these events surrounding the ghost walk are a side issue to the real narrative thrust, a clever ploy by Keene to ground the cosmic aspects of the story in everyday human concerns. The real threat here is Nodens, and aside from a painful info-dump early on, the strand delineating the nature of this otherworldly threat is developed well and with a wealth of incidental detail to lull the reader into acceptance of the incredible back drop, alien entities engaged in a war with God. Keene gives us the insides and outs of powwow magic, the occult tomes from which knowledge is obtained, the whole gruesome back story of LeHorn’s Hollow, and all of this feeds into the reader’s growing sense of unease, enabling the suspension of disbelief.
All of which is to the good, but it is in its cast of memorable characters that Ghost Walk excels. Ken Ripple is a man with a mission, sublimating grief in his efforts to make the ghost walk a success, a man who is brought face to face with things that have no place in his materialistic worldview and coming to realise that the supernatural is not just a game, a source of harmless fun. His antithesis is the writer Adam Senft, who also lost his wife in terrible circumstances, but Senft’s grief is mainly for himself and the unfair hand he thinks fate has dealt him, Journalist Maria is even more the sceptic than Ken, not sharing the spiritual certainty of her Muslim parents, and she too is forced to confront the true nature of things. The real star of show though is Levi, who is constantly mistaken for an Amish preacher and deals with other people’s false assumptions through humour. He brings a warm and witty feel to the story, and some much needed comic relief, but there is also a streak of iron in Levi’s make-up. A deeply religious man who feels that he is doing God’s will, Levi is capable of terrible things and this is seen in one of the final scenes of the story. It is a grim scene, one that drives a wedge between Maria and Levi, but also played with compassion and a recognition that sometimes we have to pay a high price. It is typical of Keene at his most gritty and thoughtful, a reflection on the cruel vagaries of this thing called life.
Hopefully we’ll be seeing Levi again, as the writer has only just tapped into his potential, but whatever Keene produces next there’s a fair chance it will be worth reading. He is a consummate entertainer.
With John Everson’s Covenant (Leisure paperback, 296pp, $7.99) we’re back in boondocks USA, this time in the form of the sleepy coastal town of Terrel, where journalist Joe Kieran has taken a job with the local rag after his big city newspaper gig turned sour. Joe still hankers to write a genuine news story though, so when a young man throws himself off the cliff that overlooks the town he seizes on it as the chance to do some real reporting at last. A little digging reveals that several young people have killed themselves in this way, and all on the same day of the year, which is a bit too much of a coincidence for Joe to swallow. When he delves further back into the town archives an even more sinister pattern emerges: people have died by falling from Terrel’s Peak every Halloween night for going on a hundred years. It’s a mystery that stretches back to the days of the town’s founding and to which Joe and his new girlfriend Cindy seem linked in some unfathomable manner.
To get any negativity out of the way first, some of the elements of the plot seem a little obvious, such as Cindy’s role in the proceedings (I may have just used the word ‘unfathomable’, but actually that plot twist was totally transparent), and there are other bits that don’t quite add up. For one, although there are a group of women with a vested interest in keeping the secret of Terrel’s Peak under wraps, Everson never really gives us a satisfactory explanation for the rest of the town being so reticent about the cliff and its ongoing death toll.
Those reservations aside, this is a fast paced and entertaining variation on that old genre standby of the town with a dark secret that is kept from outsiders, the material handled with aplomb. Kieran’s newshound on the scent nature is never in doubt, and his determination to find out what is going on drives the plot forward, with frustration growing as each avenue of enquiry is blocked. Everson misses no chance to squeeze another morsel of tension out of the narrative, with one of the highlights a claustrophobic trek down into the caves below Terrel’s Peak, while the discovery of ancient documents is the key to unlocking the fantastic truth. Another frisson comes courtesy of Joe’s relationships with Angelica, the town’s gipsy fortune teller and a valuable source of information, and Cindy, who has returned from college to attend the funeral of her old friend, the Peak’s latest victim. The two women are coerced into having sex with him, raising questions of culpability and free will, adding yet another strand to the text. In the final scenes, the threat which until then had been nebulous, takes a concrete and particularly bloody form, though the most disturbing scene is when Angelica describes her earlier attempt to leave Terrel and how she was punished, an account of abuse and degradation that, paradoxically, confers a certain nobility on the character.
Despite any flaws in the plotting, this was an engaging and well written horror story, with more than enough twists and turns to ensure I kept reading to the end and will keep an eye out for any new work from Everson.
Caveat Lector: the three preceding titles all contain sample chapters from the authors’ next novels, which I have not included in my page count.
Brides of the Impaler (Leisure paperback, 340pp, $7.99) is the fourth book I’ve read by Edward Lee, and while it has its share of gory delights, this novel is not as violent as its predecessors. There are certain similarities though. Like the three previous books, Brides comes with a feisty female protagonist and, as in two of the other books, one aspect of the unnatural affliction that attacks her is an enhanced sex drive. So then, nymphomania as a side effect of the paranormal… I’ll leave the psychologists to pick up the ball and run with that one.
Inspector Vernon is investigating the death of a homeless woman by impalement, which seems to be tied in with shop raids and church desecrations by a gang of homeless girls led by a nun. Cristina Nichols is a highly successful designer of dolls for the collectors’ market, and her latest project is a set of Church Creepies, including a Noxious Nun. Since moving into a new house, the annex of a church, bought by her lawyer boyfriend Paul, Cristina has been having dreams about a vampiric nun. Her behaviour has changed in other ways as well, with her sex drive off the chart and a growing fascination with the basement of the house. The discovery of a cache of relics buried in the basement brings matters to a head, with the succubus lover of Prince Vlad Dracul planning to house his spirit in Cristina’s body.
There’s a hokum feel to all this, reminiscent of one of old Hammer Dracula movies, with its sinister cast, sexual shenanigans and ancient legends. The plot is a complicated web of intrigue, in which every strand gets tied neatly together by the end, and Lee underpins it with some fascinating material about the historical Dracula, deftly intertwining the factual with his fiction so that you have no idea where the one begins and the other ends. As mentioned before, there is plenty of sex, with Cristina’s appetite for fucking amplified, and her concerns about her sanity add another frisson to the mix. Both Cristina and her ‘sister’ Brigit were abused as children in a foster home, and this past grounds her concerns regarding mental health and adds a, albeit temporary, note of ambiguity. Lee is similarly excellent in drawing the characters of the homeless girls and their wish to find acceptance, which makes them easy pickings for the ‘nun’, while elsewhere he captures perfectly the camaraderie of the police officers investigating the case, the professionalism and the black humour that helps them get through the day.
On the downside, there are one or two places where the writing wasn’t quite as smooth as I would have liked, with the odd word that jarred, and part of me wishes that Lee had avoided the final plot twist, which hinges on the rapacious nature of the legal profession, and leaves open the possibility of a sequel, all of which has echoes of film land franchising. Paradoxically though, if there is a sequel I’ll certainly want to read it, which I guess makes me some kind of hypocrite. Those quibbles aside, this is an entertaining and eminently readable novel.
And, as far as that goes, it seems to represent the Leisure line very well.