NR: Two by Rick Hautala

American Rick Hautala (1949 – 2013), ‘that other horror writer from Maine’, has always been on my radar, but as a blip in the corner of the screen rather than taking centre stage. Until 2021 I’d only read three books by him – a novel, a short story collection, and a novella (one from each of the main food groups). Last year I added a couple more titles to my tally.

Glimpses: The Best Short Stories of Rick Hautala contains twenty four stories. After an introduction in which the writer discusses his intentions with regard to this collection, we get into things proper with “Schoolhouse” in which a man returns to his childhood home and ventures inside the abandoned building of the title, one which has haunted his dreams for many years, finally discovering the horror that he has hidden even from himself. It’s a good point of entry, a horror story competently told, though not one with anything to offer in the way of originality. We’ve all seen variations on this scenario before. In “Every Mother’s Son” some babies are born without fingerprints and footprints, and one theory is that they are empty bodies, without souls, as the lack indicates reincarnation hasn’t taken place. One doctor determines that a soul will enter his child, whatever it takes. It’s a novel and well executed piece of work, with the story told from the viewpoint of a nurse who’d been having an affair with the doctor, her venom at the wife adding a bit of juice to the proceedings, while the idea drives the plot. More straightforward fare for “Goblin Boy” as a young boy finds that he cannot remove his Halloween mask and is transformed into the monster he pretended to be. Hautala subtly shifts the ground under our feet, and there’s an interesting concept here regarding cause and effect – does the mask make Jimmy a monster, or simply reveal what he’s been like all along?

“The Hum” is driving people insane, but it’s just the prelude to a revelation about the true nature of the world, in another story that feels a little bit too much like been here, done that, bought the t-shirt in the post-Bird Box/Quiet Place world. I think it probably would have worked better without the final twist, if the couple in the story had simply gone mad and punched each other’s ear drums out (and, in parenthesis, why nothing about how/if deaf people are affected?). Society is going down in flames, but Martin cowers inside his house terrified by the insistent “Knocking” at his front door. The story is a fine example of how personal fears can outweigh the more general ones, but slightly diluted by Hautala raising the spectre of the dead mother emerging from the grave; it would have worked better if the terror had been left without a name. “Toxic Shock” tackles the subject of abortion clinics, with a woman not realising what she has signed on for when she enters one and a twist that puts an entirely different meaning on the actions of the pro-life protesters outside the building. It’s a clever piece, one that both engages us in the plight of the woman, horrifies with the twist, and gives us something to think about as regards the morality of what is taking place.

“The Nephews” is an island with a supposedly haunted lighthouse, which a writer comes to investigate with dire consequences for himself. Everything here is suggestion, with stories of the island and its lighthouse, suggestive tape recordings etc. It’s a story that works, but only on the one level, in that at the end we really know nothing solid about what happened, only that there is something inexplicable going on, a mystery that isn’t solved. A boy and a dragon play together in “A Good Day for Dragons”, but there is disapproval in some quarters of their friendship. Eminently readable, like the fiction equivalent of Puff the Magic Dragon, this was a lovely tongue in cheek piece. In “Blossoms in the Wind” a Japanese woman is terrified by the ghost of her suicide pilot father and so doesn’t board a plane on 9/11. Miko’s plight is perfectly rendered, and there’s a certain power to the ghost’s comments on the lack of honour among the terrorists and the end note with chrysanthemum blossoms representing the souls of the dead.

Two boys disturb a grave stone hidden in the woods and release some “Late Summer Shadows”, the story told in an engaging folksy tone of voice, but with hints of EC style horror woven into the text. A reporter with a penchant for stories of gruesome death provides his own headline as “Burning Man Decapitated in Fatal Fall”. The story engages the interest with its tales that should have been up for the Darwin Awards, but ultimately the way in which our hero gets his just desserts seemed horrendously contrived, the sort of chain of events that might actually happen in real life, but is hard to sell as fiction, and certainly I wasn’t buying. “Oilman: A Tale of the ‘Little Brothers’” has a family home overrun by monstrous creatures, the story rather simple, but with an added degree of interest in the strained relationship between the parents and the way their daughter craves approval.

A son visits his ageing mother in “Iron Frog” and they share stories of suffering at the hands of an abusive father, with a twist in the tale that makes the reader want to sit up and applaud. As a character study and account of abusive behaviour this story stands out from the rest thanks to a feeling of authenticity, with the ending cathartic for both characters and the reader. It may not be the best in the collection, but in a way it is the most satisfying. In “The Call” a man is poised to re-enact with his own son a terrible event that he shared with his father, the story capturing perfectly the feel that there are places where realities overlap and things we are not meant to know, interweaving that with the idea of family tradition/curse and sacrifice. “Black Iron” sees a man have a night time encounter that leads to a realisation about his own nature, the story deftly blind-siding the reader until Hautala is ready to lower the boom on us.

A man acquires an abandoned window frame in “True Glass”, but every time he looks through it he sees human beings as the animals their personalities most resemble, leaving him wondering what he will see if he could look at himself. Again, as with many of these stories, the idea is an intriguing one, but after a substantial build-up Hautala fails to deliver on the promise of the premise, instead offering one of those too terrible for words endings. “Scared Crows” was co-written with Jim Connolly and features the character of Hellboy. A woman in a bar learns rather more than she is comfortable with about a serial killer whose spirit moved into a scarecrow. It’s a compelling piece, with plenty of atmosphere and larger than life characters, plus some nice touches of invention and a slice or two of righteous justice meted out to interlopers. A man comes up with a twisted plan to steal the artistic talent of his brother in “The Back of My Hands”. It’s a lively story, but with nothing much original to say, ultimately just another descent into madness shtick.

Two friends camping in the woods near the infamous Outlaw’s Cave fall foul of “The Screaming Head” in a piece that Hautala rightly classifies as a Campfire Tale. Again there are echoes of EC comics, especially as regards the gore at the end, but overall it is by the numbers and unsophisticated, which isn’t to say that it wasn’t a lot of fun. “Colt .24” is a deal with the Devil story, as a man tries to get away with murder but doesn’t follow instructions to the letter with dire consequences for him. It’s an ingenious tale, even if the ending is obvious. Merit murders his wife and throws her body on “The Compost Heap”, which doesn’t prove to have been a good idea in another story to be filed in the unsophisticated but fun category.

“Over the Top” has a man who was brought back to life by supernatural creatures in WWI returning to the scene of his resurrection in the hope that they will similarly help his sick granddaughter. This is another hit story, with the background perfectly drawn and intriguing for its originality, while the interaction between grandfather and granddaughter tugs at the heart strings with real skill. When the carnival comes to town Dennis abandons his wife and child to pursue the alluring “Voodoo Queen”, with bizarre consequences. It’s a story from the just desserts school of horror fiction, but you can’t help but applaud what happens to Dennis, even if it is all a bit too obvious. Finally we have “Ghost Trap” in which the discovery of a dead body on the sea bed with a chain to hold it down is the prelude to something far worse. This was another ho hum story, initially intriguing, but one where nothing much original or interesting takes place, but like all the rest of these tales it’s well written and doesn’t leave you feeling short changed. Overall this is a collection that won’t win any awards (and didn’t, as far as I can discover) but keeps the reader satisfied for the craftsmanship and snatches of imagination on display throughout. Hautala knows how to tell a story, and though few push envelopes or tread new ground, most of these stories will entertain the reader and that’s more than enough.

Which brings me to novel The Wildman. Jeff Cameron gets an unexpected phone call. His childhood friend Evan Pike is now a high flying property developer and he has purchased the island that was the site of Camp Tapiola, where Jeff and other friends spent idyllic summer holidays. Evan is inviting those that remain of the old gang – Jeff, Tyler Crosby, Fred Bowen and Mike Logan – for a reunion at the Camp, a time to drink lots of alcohol and reminisce about the old days, before the Camp is torn down. Jeff is reluctant at first – not all his memories of Camp Tapiola are happy ones; his friend Jimmy Foster died there in what was written off as a tragic accident, after which the Camp closed – but finds himself going along with it. Gathered on the island and cut off from the rest of civilisation, the friends get reacquainted, but something is not quite right. Jeff finds himself engaged in a desperate fight for survival and has to get in touch with his inner wildman.

There’s something almost Laymonesque about the back story here, with a homicidal maniac hunting down others for the flimsiest of reasons, though of course in a Laymon book sex would be on the menu, a temptation Hautala resists. It’s engaging, with some well drawn characters and revelations about the past, and plenty of excitement in the end game. I have reservations though. The basic premise didn’t quite ring true for me, and we don’t ever learn what really happened to Jimmy Foster, which was a bit of a let down. I don’t share the American love of ‘summer camp’ either, so the nostalgia element didn’t work. Nor could I tap into the whole wildman thing, with Jeff seeming to turn it on and off at will – basically, he went through so much, he should have been dead. None of it was particularly convincing. It was entertaining for the time it lasted, but the equivalent of a straight to video movie rather than one deserving of theatrical release.

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