A review that originally appeared in Black Static #11:-
Gord Rollo: Crimson
(Leisure paperback, 326pp, $7.99)
Johnathan Page and his mother move to the Canadian town of Dunnville, unaware that the farmhouse they occupy has a foreboding history – it was once the property of Old Man Harrison, who slaughtered his family and then himself, though his body disappeared. Johnny and his friends David, Tom and Peter stumble upon a hidden cellar and unleash what they think is the spirit of Old Man Harrison, but is in fact something much worse, the evil spirit that caused him to commit terrible crimes, a ghost escaped from Hell. It’s the start of a recurring cycle of evil stretched over many years, with the boys attacked again as teenagers and then as grown men.
I enjoyed the splatter punk(ish) sensibility of Rollo’s Leisure debut Jigsaw Man and with a gross out opening scene that had me cringing in my seat I thought Crimson was going to be more of the same. Unfortunately this reissue of a 2006 novel doesn’t have the same ghoulish chutzpah to it. Rather there’s the sense that Rollo wanted to produce a horror story that would touch all the bases, a magnum opus of sorts, the kind of ambitious work that many writers won’t consider until well on in their careers, and if so then kudos to him for ambition, but sadly he has overreached. A cover blurb compares Crimson to King’s It, and while I certainly can’t agree that Crimson is the better book, I can see why the comparison was made. The story of small town evil, of a group of people who fight that evil as children and then must do so again in their adulthood, has an obvious parallel in King’s work. Rollo avoids the textual interweaving that made King’s book such a success, but spreads the story over three time periods rather than two. Other King comparisons suggest themselves. The end section which finds David imprisoned for a series of murders he didn’t commit, has strong echoes of Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption.
However Rollo doesn’t have King’s ability to carry a tale (no real criticism, as very few writers do). His focus is mainly on the characters, so that Dunnville doesn’t have the depth to it or come to life on the page in the way that Derry did in It. The writing style didn’t really make me feel close to the characters or quite believe in what was happening to them, and so much of the plot seems simply ‘for the sake of it’, as when the creature decides to mess around with David’s death, turning it into a grandstanding finale when a much simpler plot twist would have sufficed, or the fact that it can only stay corporeal for so long, which seems like nothing more than a convenient way to stretch the story out over the years. The explanation of how and why the creature acts as it does, plus its back story, all seem borderline risible, the kind of thing you’d expect to find in a supernatural-lite show like Charmed rather than a more seriously intended work like this.
There are good things to this book, but they are more to do with the horror ‘effects’ than anything else, as when David is chased by a malevolent scarecrow and Tom has to flee a giant spider, the scenes when the creature stalks and kills innocents in its attempt to draw the boys into a trap, the icky scene where their bodies get preyed on by leeches, David’s gaol struggle with a ruthless serial killer. Rollo knows how to do the gross-out and he knows how to keep the reader on the edge of the seat, but these are all in the nature of ghost train thrills. You take the ride and you jump at all the right places, but at the end you’re back where you started and possibly wondering if there was any point to it other than the ‘jump’. If Crimson were a movie, then it would be one where nearly all the budget went on sfx, leaving precious little over for cast, script and location. I assuage my disappointment by reminding myself that Jigsaw Man was written after this, and so Rollo’s career is progressing in an upwardly mobile manner.