Friday, July 14, 2017

The Revelation By Bentley Little

The Revelation
By Bentley Little
Copyright 1990

Dead babies can’t take things off of shelves
Dead babies can’t take care of themselves

- Alice Cooper

The Revelation was Bentley Little’s first published novel and won the Bram Stoker Award for first novel in 1990.

From Wikipedia:

The novel (as many of Little's works do) deals with a series of unexplained events in a small town in Arizona. A church is defaced with goat's blood, the pastor and his family disappear, and several townspeople begin having terrifying visions of deformed infants. Eventually, an unknown force begins to attack and murder several of the townspeople.

Gordon, the main protagonist, discovers that his wife is pregnant and begins to fear for her safety and that of the unborn child. Soon, a seemingly unbalanced evangelical preacher named Brother Elias comes to the town to preach about the end times. Widely ignored at first, he gradually gains a following of people as more and more bizarre events unfold in the town.

As the terror mounts, Elias convinces Gordon, the sheriff, and the new pastor to join him in his quest to stop Satan from raising an army of deformed infants. It seems that the devil has the power to corrupt the unborn into horrible servants of darkness, and over the centuries hundreds of these stillborn children have been buried in the hills surrounding the town.

Elias reveals he is not human, but an earthly servant of God whose role it is to stop Satan from assembling his army. He further explains that he has done this several times over the millennia. The four men face off against the incarnation of the devil, who has taken the form of the missing pastor. They succeed in stopping him, though Elias knows that the battle is never truly over and begins wandering away to make preparations for the next battle.

The Revelation is an outstanding first effort for a writer and compares favorably to Robert McCammon’s Baal as a good first effort.

The book closely resembled plots of many early 1970s slasher films. This book could have easily served as source material for Mario Bava or Dario Argento. Much of it is crudely violent. The descriptions of the killer babies are crude. But it’s a crude that works for Little. It has served him well over the years in later work.

It does have a few weaknesses in the characters which is to be expected from a first novel. The sheriff is quick to embrace the supernatural explanation of what is happening to his town. Little’s sheriff is not all that different than the stereotypical small town sheriff. He is level-headed. He takes things as he sees them. Yet his arrival at his conclusion required no hard convincing. It required no dramatic epiphany. His conclusion was necessary to advance the plot and Little took the easy way out.

I liked the ambiguity of Brother Elias. Was he good? Was he evil? Was he a nut? We really don’t get a read on him until the climax when the group must go out and make their stand against evil. But through the book, he acts very much as an antagonist. His preaching causes civil unrest. He shows up at the most inopportune times to disrupt. Little was magnificent in his development of this character.

Little consistently writes well-paced fiction and The Revelation is no exception. Little gets down to the business of establishing his main characters early. The trigger for the action arrives within the first few pages as well when the church is desecrated and the minister and his family disappear. This is how young novelists usually go about their business and Little is no different. From there, Little keeps the action moving nicely and provides a climax that is just the right length for a novel like this. Little is definitely plot driven.

The Revelation was a good way to pass the time with some raw, basic horror. There’s nothing new here. No twist on established tropes. No outstanding characters. Just plot driven horror. It’s not bad and it’s a great outstanding first effort.

Saturday, June 17, 2017

The Hunter from the Woods By Robert McCammon

The Hunter from the Woods
By Robert McCammon
Copyright 2011

What is a lycanthrope in the eyes of God?

These stories all occur before or after the action in the McCammon novel, The Wolf's Hour.

The Great White Way
A young Mikhail is working as an animal keeper in a gypsy circus. He is having an affair with the girlfriend of the circus’ professional wrestler. She tries to set him up for a fall after he speaks to another woman. Mikhail has the last laugh.

The first story starts to fill in the backstory of Mikhail, still a youth freshly escaped from the fate that met his fellow werewolves. I loved the narrative voice combined with sparse dialogue.

The Man from London

A spy from London infiltrates a remote Russian village in search of a man that is believed to have extraordinary abilities that will help the British cause. He finds a filthy youth living in a church, surrounded by his own filth. He is disgusted by young Mikhail and the time he wasted in searching him out. However, when he tries to escape Russia, he finds that Mikhail does indeed live up to his billing.

As a stand-alone short story, this was a bit thin. However, it fills in another space in Mikhail’s backstory.

Sea Chase
Michael Gallatin is aboard a freighter in the days leading up to World War II. He is posing as a deck hand to protect a Nazi defector and his family aboard the ship. A Nazi ship is in pursuit and eventually catches up to them. Michael and the captain combine their efforts to lead their nearly crippled ship to safety while defeating the Nazis.

This was everything a short story with an established character should be. It can’t quite stand on its own because McCammon is assuming you know Gallatin’s backstory. However, the plot and the other characters work incredibly well and the story is inventive and exciting.

The Wolf and the Eagle

While flying from the desert battlefront to Cairo, Michael Gallatin’s plane is shot down during an aerial battle. His shoulder is badly injured and he is in the middle of nowhere. He is soon taken prisoner by the German aviator who shot down his plane. The enemies soon find common cause when they are hunted by desert warriors who know no side in the conflict and kill indiscriminately. They also face a common foe called thirst. Finally, coming upon a village of desert marauders, Gallatin hatches a plan to get water that will require the men to cooperate.

Not much of the werewolf trope in this story, but a good story nonetheless. It was not hard to see where it was going with the enemies having to combine forces to survive. What is remarkable is the portrayal of the German aviator as a great warrior and a decent human being. That characterization along with great storytelling make The Wolf and the Eagle another worthy entry in the life story of Michael Gallatin.

The Room at the Bottom of the Stairs
Michael Gallatin’s new assignment is the oldest of the old spy assignments. Make his way into Berlin to seduce a magazine photographer who has been quite adept at identifying members of the German resistance and having them killed. Gallatin meets her and the two are instantaneously taken with each other. Michael finds himself falling for her hard, despite what she is. Eventually word comes down that he’s the man to do it and it has to be done now. Michael dispenses with his usual means of disposing of people to do something different for this woman.

This was quite a long story and was mostly a love story. No werewolves were present until the end when Michael had to make his final escape. It was quite well told and, while we knew that McCammon could produce some decent erotica, we learn that he writes the stuff on par with Jacqueline Suzanne and Judith Krantz.

Death of a Hunter
It’s 1953 and Michael is living in his remote Scottish estate as a recluse. His last job involved learning more about Chinese operations in Singapore and he was photographed as a wolf. The Chinese have made it a point to capture him alive or dead – but preferably alive. When they arrive, he, at an advanced age, finds his toughest opponents yet.

This story was short and sad. All that we know about Michael – his tragic childhood, his warrior background, his proud lycathtropic heritage comes to an end. I felt the end of Michael Gallatin like I’ve felt the end of few characters. I did not realize how much this book added to how deeply I felt about him until I got to the end.

Saturday, June 10, 2017

Comes the Blind Fury By John Saul

Comes the Blind Fury
By John Saul
Copyright 1980

A century ago, a young, blind girl walks along a path near her home. Familiar with the path, she is comfortable and happy making her way near a sheer bluff. But soon come the other kids to tease and taunt her because she is blind. She panics and stumbles over the bluff to her death. In her plummet to the beach below, she swears revenge.

One hundred years later, Michelle Pendleton moves to Paradise Point from Boston. Eager to enjoy small town life and make new friends, Amanda welcomes the move. Her father, Dr. Cal Pendleton, is there to take over the practice of the aging town doctor.

While moving in, Michelle finds an old china doll in a closet. She names the doll Amanda. She soon learns from her new friends that a little girl named Amanda once lived in her house and died after falling from the bluff. Amanda’s grave is quite well known in the town as his her mother’s whose stone has quite the cryptic inscription.

Michelle’s mother soon gives birth to Michelle’s new sister and events turn for Michelle. She is adopted and becomes painfully aware that her parents now have a biological daughter of their own. One day, she is at a picnic on the beach with several friends when a girl starts teasing her about being adopted. Michelle runs away, but trips on the bluff and falls. She is badly injured.

After a while, her physical injuries heal, but she maintains that she needs a cane to walk. She starts dressing in all black. Soon, she is an outcast and the kids routinely make fun of her. She seems not to care. After all, she has a new friend in Amanda who comes to show her things.

Soon, kids around Paradise Cove begin dying. Those who torment Michelle seem to die in unfortunate accidents or are outright murdered. The only person present when these deaths occur is Michelle. Soon, the past and the present converge, brought about by a vengeful spirit and a vengeful human bent on visiting his family curse upon a man he feels wronged him.

This is John Saul’s fourth novel and he employs what became his standard format for many of his books. Child wronged a hundred years ago seeks revenge by employing a child of today. The characters and circumstances are different, but, with a few exceptions, the same trope applies. Nonetheless, Saul has a way of telling a good story employing this framework again and again.

The story is much tighter than Saul’s earlier works. The evil is defined. The reason the past is important is part of the mystery that is brought nicely to fruition. The main character is two parts sympathetic, one part slacker. Saul did leave us with a taste of ambiguity that worked for the story. Did Michelle kill because she wanted to? Or did Amanda’s lust for revenge drive her to it.

All the usual Saul tropes are here. The weak, indecisive father. The ancient evil bent on revenge. The wife who has no idea what is going on around her. The small town cop who is friends with the family around which all the evil is transpiring. One could complain that Saul tells the same tale over and over again. Perhaps, but many great books are retellings of older books. Saul uses the same devices over and over again to tell decent stories. This is never going to earn him a spot in the pantheon of great horror writers who weave a different tale every time. But that does not make him any less fun to read and sometimes, it’s good to have fun while reading.

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The Exorcist By William Peter Blatty

The Exorcist
By William Peter Blatty
Copyright 1971

The book. The movie. Both acclaimed in their respective media. Both are chilling. Both are fantastic.

From Wikipedia:
An elderly Jesuit priest named Father Lankester Merrin is leading an archaeological dig in northern Iraq and is studying ancient relics. After discovering a small statue of the demon Pazuzu (an actual ancient Assyrian demigod), a series of omens alerts him to a pending confrontation with a powerful evil, which, unknown to the reader at this point, he has battled before in an exorcism in Africa.

Meanwhile, in Georgetown, a young girl named Regan MacNeil is living with her famous mother, actress Chris MacNeil, who is in Georgetown filming a movie. As Chris finishes her work on the film, Regan begins to become inexplicably ill. After a gradual series of poltergeist-like disturbances in their rented house, for which Chris attempts to find rational explanations, Regan begins to rapidly undergo disturbing psychological and physical changes: she refuses to eat or sleep, becomes withdrawn and frenetic, and increasingly aggressive and violent. Chris initially mistakes Regan's behavior as a result of repressed anger over her parents' divorce and absent father.

After several unsuccessful psychiatric and medical treatments, Regan's mother, an atheist, turns to a local Jesuit priest for help as Regan's personality becomes increasingly disturbed. Father Damien Karras, who is currently going through a crisis of faith coupled with the loss of his mother, agrees to see Regan as a psychiatrist, but initially resists the notion that it is an actual demonic possession. After a few meetings with the child, now completely inhabited by a diabolical personality, he turns to the local bishop for permission to perform an exorcism on the child.

The bishop with whom he consults does not believe Karras is qualified to perform the rites, and appoints the experienced Merrin—who has recently returned to the United States—to perform the exorcism, although he does allow the doubt-ridden Karras to assist him. The lengthy exorcism tests the priests both physically and spiritually. When Merrin, who had previously suffered cardiac arrhythmia, dies during the process, completion of the exorcism ultimately falls upon Father Karras. When he demands that the demonic spirit inhabit him instead of the innocent Regan, the demon seizes the opportunity to possess the priest. Karras heroically surrenders his own life in exchange for Regan's by jumping out of her bedroom window and falling to his death, regaining his faith in God as his last rites are read.

The name William Peter Blatty is not a household name like Stephen King. He did not produce a prolific amount of horror fiction or much fiction for that matter. But in delivering The Exorcist, Blatty wrote one of the absolute cornerstones of the horror genre and built upon the ground laid by writers like Ira Levin to put horror novels back on the shelves and inspire novelists to write horror after the genre was nearly dormant for more than a decade.

It’s hard to put a finger on just what makes The Exorcist so good because it does have a few problems. The dialogue is atrocious. Blatty has a tin ear for the spoken word. It was stilted, choppy, and sometimes painful to read. I know he was trying hard to develop the detective as a deliberate bumbler – Columbo before Columbo. But he tried too hard. It was difficult to read when he talked.

One of the plot devices Blatty employs – the desecration of the churches – is never fully utilized or developed. We are supposed to understand that Regan did this or that Pazuzu did it. But the link is never established. This could have taken the novel to whole new levels of terror. I wanted to see so much more done with this.

What is good is the development of Chris MacNeil as a mother. She is a famous actress and Blatty gives us just enough of this to make her interesting. What he does so much more thoroughly for the benefit of the reader is develop her as a mother with a seemingly unsolvable problem with her daughter. She is desperate. She is frightened. In an age when eschewing faith was trendy with the nation’s elite, she was forced to return to it. It all was developed wonderfully.

The setting added a lot to the plot. This was not a medieval village or a remote part of Europe or the Middle East. Pazuzu took his act right to the nation’s capital, just off the Georgetown campus. It was urban America. It was a wealthy family with a wealthy child. American readers could relate. The landmarks were real to them. The people were real. That went a long way to making The Exorcist an excellent horror novel.

The strongest element was the blending of science and religion. Father Karras is not only a priest, but a psychiatrist. He tries science, grasping at the rational before employing his wavering faith. He exhausts the solutions science has to offer before seeking a religious solution. This blending lent a great deal of rationality to the novel in an era when society sought rational answers for all dysfunction.

I’ve heard the movie called the scariest film of all time. I disagree. It is a good film bordering on great. But scary? No. The book ranks very highly on the various rankings of horror novels. Is it that terrifying? I didn’t think so. It is interesting. It is compelling reading. It is a good story, well paced and tightly told. But it didn’t have me transfixed the way The Shining or the Haunting of Hill House did. Those are superior scary stories.

Blatty’s novel was timely inasmuch as Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby was. Faith in the church in America was ebbing in 1971. The social revolution of the 1960s had ended, but its aftermath was still much a part of the American fabric. Blatty’s novel served to remind America of the power of faith. I don’t mean to preach the gospel. It’s just an observation that faith and religion are powerful. At a time when its importance was diminishing, Blatty’s novel and movie was as subtle as a brick to the forehead.

If you are a fan of horror, The Exorcist is an absolute must-read. The tropes Blatty establishes would be used by many other authors for stories of possession. Blatty drew from fact and solid research and introduced it to the horror community. It became a wellspring of modern possession tales and should be valued for that if nothing else.

Monday, May 29, 2017

This Perfect Day By Ira Levin

This Perfect Day
By Ira Levin
Copyright 1970

Christ, Marx, Wood and Wei
Led us to this perfect day

Marx, Wood, Wei and Christ
All but Marx were sacrificed

Wood, Wei, Christ and Marx
Gave us lovely schools and parks

Wei, Christ, Marx and Wood
Made us humble, made us good

Hundreds of years in the future, mankind is guided, assisted, and controlled by a computer known as Uni. Uni assigns treatments of various drugs and vitamins to keep humans pliable and happy. Jobs are assigned. Sex is permitted on Saturday nights. People are moved from continent to continent based on Uni’s perceived needs. Society is docile, happy, and controlled.

From Wikipedia:
Li RM35M4419, nicknamed "Chip" (as in "chip off the old block") by his nonconformist grandfather Jan, is a typical child Member who, through a mistake in genetic programming, has one green eye. Through his grandfather's encouragement, he learns how to play a game of "wanting things", including imagining what career he might pick if he had the choice. Chip is told by his adviser that "picking" and "choice" are manifestations of selfishness, and he tries to forget his dreams.

As Chip grows up and begins his career, he is mostly a good citizen, but commits minor subversive acts, such as procuring art materials for another "nonconformist" member who was denied them. His occasional oddities attract the attention of a secret group of Members who, like Chip, are also nonconformists. There he meets King, a Medicenter chief who obtains members records for potential future recruitment to the group, King's beautiful girlfriend Lilac, a strong-willed and inquisitive woman with unusually dark skin, and Snowflake, a rare albino member. These members teach Chip how to get his treatments reduced so that he can feel more and stronger emotions. Chip begins an affair with Snowflake, but is really attracted to Lilac.

Chip and Lilac begin to search through old museum maps and soon discover islands around the world that have disappeared from their modern map. They begin to wonder if perhaps other "incurable" members like themselves have escaped to these islands. King tells them that the idea is nonsense, but Chip soon learns that King has already interacted with some "incurables" and that they are indeed real. Before he can tell Lilac, Chip's ruse is discovered by his adviser. He and all the other members of the group are captured and treated back into docility (except King, who takes his own life before he can be captured).

Some years later, Chip's regular treatment is delayed by an earthquake. In the meanwhile, he begins to "wake up" again and remembers Lilac and the islands. He is able to shield his arm from the treatment nozzle and becomes fully awake for the first time. He locates Lilac again and kidnaps her. At first she fights him, but as she too becomes more "awake," she remembers the islands and comes willingly. In process she was raped by Chip. Finding a convenient abandoned boat on the beach, they head for the nearest island of incurables, Majorca. There they learn that UniComp, as a last resort, has planted failsafes that eventually lead all incurables to these islands, where they will be trapped forever away from the treated population, and eventually marry and have a child together.

Chip conceives of a plan—destroy the computer, UniComp, by blowing up its refrigeration system. He recruits other incurables to join him, and they make their way to the mainland. Just as they reach UniComp, one of the incurables—an agent of the programmers—betrays his partners and leads the rest of group at gunpoint to a secret luxurious underground city beneath UniComp, where they are met by Wei, one of the original planners of the Unification. Wei and the other "programmers" who live in UniComp have arranged this test so that the most daring and resourceful incurables will make their way to UniComp, where they, too, will live in luxury as programmers.

After joining the programmers, and after a few tentative attempts to confide in someone, Chip shares his misgivings with no one, lies low, and dedicates himself to the task of gaining Wei’s confidence. For example, to deceive Wei, Chip consents to the replacement of his green eye with a brown one—even though this involves giving up a cherished part of his identity.

But when, nine months later, a new group of incurables arrives, Chip leaves the welcome party with the intention of using the newcomers' explosives to blow up the master computer. There follows a harrowing physical struggle with Wei (who has the body of a young athlete), and the shooting of Wei. Just before he gets killed, Wei betrays his real motive in creating this dystopia:

“Chip, listen to me,” he said, leaning forward, “there’s joy in having it, in controlling, in being the only one.”

Chip knew all along that it was power hunger—not altruism—that drove Wei to chicanery and murders. On his way up from the underground city towards sunlight, Chip tells an angry programmer: “’There’s joy in having it’: those were [Wei’s] last words. Everything else was rationalization. And self-deception.”

The book ends with Chip riding a helicopter toward Majorca where his wife, son, financial sponsors, and friends are hopefully waiting for him. For the first time in his life, he sees raindrops in daytime—nature’s affirmation that the era of slavery and total control is finally over.

I have been an Ira Levin fan since I first discovered The Stepford Wives in the late 1970s. Yet this book never crossed my path. How can that be? I am glad to have discovered it.

Levin never veils his metaphor too heavily and here, he is obviously panning the communist state. He decries the central planners who decide every facet of the lives of the people in a communist society. However, he puts a different spin on it than Orwell or Huxley. His totalitarianism is passive from beginning to end. It never harms or hurts dissenters. It exploits them. Perhaps that is scarier.

For approximately 7/8s of this book, I was confident where the story was headed. I enjoyed reading it, but felt that Levin had broken no new ground in the field of dystopian totalitarianism. Man, was I wrong. That linear path that Levin was following took an abrupt turn. Adjusting to that, the reader thinks he’s got it figured and it twists again. I love a writer not afraid to punch his readers in the face with a great twist. Levin is great with the ending of his book.

I’ve not read all of Levin’s works, but I’ve read most of them and this one was the only one with anything resembling a happy ending. No happy ending (if you’re a Christian) for Rosemary or her baby. No happy ending for the feminists in The Stepford Wives. No happy ending from those exploited Boys from Brazil. Yet the hero in his one stab at dystopia gets his happy day. For fans of Levin, that in itself was a twist they probably didn’t see coming.

Like Levin’s other work, This Perfect Day was devoid of humor. No laugh lines. No humorous situations. It’s all dark and disconcerting. For me, this is what good horror and good dystopia is made of. Dean Koontz is one to get too cutesy with his horror and just ruins it. Stephen King does this occasionally as well. Give me the nasty writers like Levin or Bentley Little.

I wonder why This Perfect Day is not better known or more highly regarded. I believe this was the only Levin novel not made into a film and that’s a damn shame. As much as I appreciate the b-movie campiness and unveiled social commentary of the movie version of Logan’s Run, I know that This Perfect Day is a better story. Farrah Fawcett and all the other beautiful women would have fit into the script quite nicely. Alas, without a screen treatment, This Perfect Day is doomed to obscurity with so many other great dystopian novels of the 1960s and 1970s unrecognized by the Hollywood intelligentsia.

Sunday, May 14, 2017

Suffer the Children By John Saul

Suffer the Children
By John Saul
Copyright 1977

A hundred years ago, in Port Arbello, Maine, an ugly and unspeakable crime happens. A little girl is raped and murdered by her father. Her body is never found. After committing the ghastly deed, the father promptly commits suicide. This is the curse of the Congers.

One hundred years later, the Congers still reside in the same home in Port Arbello, with nearby woods and a cliff falling to the ocean below. The old family fortune is dried up and Jack Conger publishes the town newspaper while his wife, Rose, sells real estate.

Jack Conger has committed his own crime. He does not remember the details, but the results are apparent. One day, a year before, he came out of the woods carrying the unconscious body of his younger daughter, Sarah. Since that day he attacked – but did not rape – Sarah, she has not spoken. She lives in her own world that only she understands.

The Conger’s older daughter, Elizabeth, is a well-adjusted 13 year old who is well behaved, does well in school, and takes very good care of her impaired sister.

There is tension in the Conger marriage as Jack’s crime has rendered him impotent – at least when it comes to his wife. Between their dysfunctional daughter – rendered so by Jack – and their marital problems, the Congers are always on edge with each other.

One night, a classmate of Elizabeth’s stumbles back into town, also unable or unwilling to speak. The local constabulary can find no evidence of an abduction or any other crime even though her father keeps pressing for a full investigation. Later, a second girl goes missing, lured to a remote cave by Elizabeth who is answering to another entity that has entered her head.

Elizabeth has been visiting a cave that is believed to only be legend. The cave is located along the cliff and is very hard to get to. There, she has found the skeleton of a young girl murdered 100 years before. The spirit of that girl speaks to Elizabeth through a Ouija board and takes control of her mind and body at night. She goes to the cave and stages tea parties with her captive, a dead cat, and the dead girl.

A third child, an eight year old boy, goes missing a few days later and the residents of Port Arbello are quite worried. The boy, like the girl, was lured to the cave by Elizabeth and forced to participate in the macabre ritual.

Meanwhile, young Sarah – who has been witness to many of Elizabeth’s crimes – is growing more agitated and acting out. Elizabeth’s activities go unnoticed as the Congers deal with their daughter, her school, and the school psychologist. Sarah becomes a suspect in the disappearances even though the police concede she is too small to have overpowered a teenage girl.

Events come to a head when a third kid goes missing. This time, it is the teenage son of the Congers’ new neighbors. Elizabeth eventually kills all of the kids she has imprisoned in the remote cave and manages to frame Sarah for the crimes when Sarah returns from the cave carrying a dismembered arm. Sarah is sent to a sanitarium while Elizabeth and her parents try to resume a somewhat normal life. The bodies of the missing kids are not found for many years until construction of apartments leads the sheriff to the remote cavern and the skeletal remains of four children.

Suffer the Children was John Saul’s first novel and sold more than a million copies. In the wake of the success of The Exorcist, books featuring young girls possessed or driven to evil took off in popularity. Witness the success of Audrey Rose and other titles like it. Saul’s manuscript was timely in its submission.

It also set a pattern for plotting that Saul would use over and over again throughout his career which has now apparently ended. He starts with a prologue taking place 100 years before where a child is either the victim of a crime or is the doer of a crime. Then that spirit is awakened and haunts or helps a child or children in the present. Not all his books are like this. But most follow this same format.

Suffer the Children succeeds on several levels. First and foremost, it is atmospheric. The remote, hidden cave and the ghastly scenes Elizabeth plays out are brilliantly written and absolutely creepy. The candle-lit macabre tea parties with Elizabeth’s rantings succeed in creeping out the reader.

The tension in the novel is well-developed. Saul usually develops his characters only to the point of making them interesting enough to the reader for the plot to work. There are no extensive backstories – al a Stephen King. But Saul goes above and beyond in developing his characters in Suffer the Children with Jack and Rose Conger. The tension in their marriage, their growing anxiety over Sarah’s increasingly bizarre behavior, their worry about the Conger curse, Jack’s affair with his secretary and their feelings of inadequacy as parents all serve to keep the tension high in Suffer the Children.

Saul falls short in what I believe to be an essential element of great horror: What was the nature of the evil? Although parts of the story are told from Elizabeth’s point of view, we are never really in her head. What drove her to do what she did? Was there an evil spirit, Beth, who contacted her through the Ouija board? Did finding the cave and the body of the dead girl lead to the possession? Or, was she just acting out the Conger curse because she had to be the perfect daughter in a home riddled with tension? Saul never lets us know exactly.

The actions and reactions of some of the characters are rather unbelievable. Why would Rose stay with and continue to love a man who inexplicably beat his daughter so badly that she was traumatized to the point of not talking? Why would Elizabeth, aware of her father’s crimes against her sister, continue to love and cherish a father who did that? Why would a chief of police continue a close friendship with that sort of person? None of that really makes sense, but is essential for Saul’s plot to work. A plot relying on implausible behavior is going to be weak.

Along that same point, nobody even has a private moral objection to Jack’s crime. Nobody privately thinks he is a drunken lout devoid of morality. Worse, people like his secretary and the chief of police tell him what he did wasn’t so bad because he didn’t rape her! If I knew someone like this, if I was force by business or decorum to be polite, I would. But my private feelings would be of loathing.

Why was Jack not arrested for his crime against his daughter? One might reason it was a different decade with different values, but I don’t buy it. Child abuse was child abuse in the 1970s. He got drunk and beat his daughter badly. He obviously did some serious harm to her psyche. It is clear that she was rape tested. Yet he is allowed to go on with his life like he was the perfect father. It just doesn’t work in real life or in fiction. It’s too implausible.

These shortcomings can all be explained by the fact that Saul was a young writer and this was his first novel. He got much better over the next several books with more believable character actions and reactions and more clearly defined evil. While Suffer the Children is not great horror, it is good horror carried by some excellent writing. It was good enough to establish John Saul as one of the top authors of horror fiction for four decades and worth the time spent reading.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

The Legend of Huma: Dragonlance Heroes, Vol. 1 By Richard Knaak

The Legend of Huma: Dragonlance Heroes, Vol. 1
By Richard Knaak
Copyright 1987

From Wikipedia:

The book narrates the adventures of Huma Dragonbane, a Knight of the Crown, his meeting with Kaz the Minotaur, the discovering of the dragonlances, and the defeat of Takhisis during the Third Dragon Wars.

Huma and the rest of his unit patrol through a desolate village. Huma's commander, Rennard, orders the investigation of the nearby woods due to a rumor of goblin activity. During the ensuing confrontation Huma is separated from his unit. While searching for his comrades he comes across goblins tormenting a captive, the minotaur Kaz. After saving Kaz, Huma strikes up an unlikely friendship with the minotaur and later with a silver dragon before being reunited with the Knights.

Once back at headquarters, they encounter a battle between the forces of Paladine and the forces of Takhisis. Huma is struck in the battle and loses consciousness. He awakens in an infirmary being tended by a woman who introduces herself as Gwyneth. Huma is appointed captain of the watch, and encounters his old friend, Magius, a powerful magic user.

Magius tells Huma to trust him, but has to leave while Huma returns to the knights' encampment. The knights are engulfed in a battle with the forces of Takhisis and Huma and Kaz are thrown into a magical darkness. Magius leads Huma and Kaz through the battle to his Citadel, but later prevents them from leaving. Magius tells Huma that he is a renegade mage that took the test in the Tower of High Sorcery.

The Citadel is discovered by Galan Dracos and comes under attack by the forces of Takhisis. Magius tells Huma that a mountain represented by a tapestry in the Citadel is important and that Huma should journey into Ergoth toward this mountain. Huma and Kaz flee the Citadel.

Huma and Kaz are separated. Huma fights off dreadwolves and warriors and becomes lost in the forests of Ergoth. He is helped by an Ergothian commander who brings him to the Ergothian camp. The Ergothians tell Huma that the lands around Ergoth have been ravaged by the plague. While the camp is traveling Huma comes upon a ruins of a town and is captured by servants of Morgion. The Ergothians rescue Huma who then encounters Magius, and the two escape into the night.

Magius and Huma come across the knight Bouron who is attached to an outpost of the Knights of Solamnia. Bouron and his commander Taggin welcome Huma. Taggin captures Kaz and puts him on trial. Taggin releases Kaz to Huma and allows Huma to continue on his journey to the mountains accompanied by a retinue of knights.

Magius, Kaz and Huma traverse the paths in the mountains and Huma is separated from the others. Huma is led to a temple built into the side of the mountain and encounters Gwyeneth. Gwyeneth tells Huma that he will face challenges before he can claim the prize that he has come for. Huma enters the mountain and faces Wyrmfather, an ancient, serpentine dragon. Huma hides in Wyrmfather's treasure room, discovering an evil magical sword called the Sword of Tears. Huma kills Wyrmfather with the Sword of Tears and is teleported through a magical mirror in the treasure room to Solomnia.

Huma returns to Vingaard Keep to find that the head of the knights, Grand Master Trake, has died. Huma is to attend a meeting that will determine whether Bennett, Trake's nephew or Lord Oswald, the High Warrior and Huma's mentor, will become the next Grand Master. During the meeting Rennard tells everyone that Oswald has become mysteriously ill. At night Huma discovers the guards near Lord Oswald have been put into a magical sleep, then encounters Rennard dressed as a servant of Morgion, trying to poison Lord Oswald. Huma and Rennard fight, but Rennard escapes. Lord Oswald thanks Huma for his help and sends him back to the mountains of Ergoth. Huma encounters Rennard inciting villagers to violence. The two fight until Rennard is mortally wounded. Huma is then teleported back to Wyrmfather's treasure room.

Huma finds the Sword of Tears, lying among the treasure. He takes it with him and looks for an exit from the mountain. Huma encounters Gilean, a grey clad mystic, who tells him to leave the sword behind. Huma struggles for control as the sword tries to control his mind, eventually prevailing, discarding the sword. Huma is granted access to the workshop of Duncan Ironweaver.

Duncan tells Huma that he is the creator of the Dragonlance and allows him to pass into a room where Huma has a vision of the knightly, benevolent god Paladine, on a platinum dragon. Paladine hands Huma the Dragonlance.

Huma exits the chamber and finds Gwyeneth, who tells him that Kaz and Magius are nearby. Huma finds Kaz and Magius and with the help of a silver dragon that Gwyeneth sent for, they are able to prepare the lances for transport to Vingaard Keep.

En route to Vingaard the group is attacked by Crynus and Char. Huma and the silver dragon kill Char and Crynus is defeated with the help of Kaz and the silver dragon. Warriors of Takhisis attempt to steal the lances, but are prevented from doing so by Kaz. Magius is captured and taken back to Galan Dracos.

Huma rejoins the knights to find that there are many Dragonlances already there. He finds Duncan Ironweaver, who tells him he had many. Many good dragons show up and are fitted with the new lances, and go into battle against the evil dragons of Takhisis.

This entry in the Dragonlance canon is held in high regard by fans of the series. I enjoyed reading it. But I thought the characters were flat and the plot somewhat episodic.

There were many exciting scenes and the battle scenes were well written and fun to read. But between the battles, there were few revelations, few insights, and little introspection on the part of Huma. This is when character development happens. This is where you make the character interesting, sympathetic, and compelling. Knaak fell a little short of that. Huma was thin.

He had honor. He was all about the honor. Why? Just because he was a Knight of Solomnia? As Knaak reveals, knights are capable of scheming and duplicity. What set Huma apart? What made his honor flawless? We never learn.

Huma’s friendship with Magius is another undeveloped aspect of the character development. Were they just kids who were close friends? Did they face adversity together as children? Did one help the other as children? What forged this bond that led to Huma’s trust in Magius who seemingly had gray morals? Again, that was left on the table.

I loved Kaz the Minotaur. This character will appear again in the Dragonlance saga and have his own novel. Kaz defines what it is to be a minotaur. He’s warlike, aggressive, and hot tempered. But minotaurs are also about honor, like the Knights. Knaak’s treatment of Kaz and the minotaur race was fantastic.

Overall, Knaak’s development of the Knights of Solomnia of old – those knights so revered by Sturm in the Chronicles – was also masterful. This is their first appearance in novelization and given Weis and Hickman’s background on them, had to be handled carefully, lest they become a caricature of moral perfection, or worse, a politically scheming group of soldiers that was less than the honorable warriors of legend.

The dragons in The Legend of Huma were charming and again, handled well by Knaak based on the legend developed by Weis and Hickman. Gwyneth is a charming, but tragic creature. She is a true dragon in her fierceness in battle. She is a kind, loving woman in human form and Huma’s legend is defined by her.

Finally, I give credit to Knaak for an ending fitting for a legend. Huma’s death was masterfully crafted. Not lugubrious, not melodramatic, but heroic and sad. This is the easiest point for an author to trip up, getting caught up in his need to flex his writing chops. It’s also the easiest way to ruin a good story, making the reader gag on drama. Huma’s end was a fitting end to a knight whose legend would survive the cataclysm.

My evaluation is based on a comparison to the Chronicles and Legends written by Weis and Hickman. Perhaps that is an unfair standard, given that Weis and Hickman were the creators of the Dragonlance world and were allowed to make their own rules, set their own parameters, and define the world. Knaak works within those definitions. But with the thin characters, it falls short of the tales of the earlier novels who had fantastic, well developed characters who made the stories work.