Ghost Walk by Brian Keene (2008): Our world continues to exist because stones with the right sigils and signs on them sit in the right places, keeping evil out. It’s amazing how often this trope repeats itself in fantasy and horror fiction — it’s even a key component of the final season of Lost. To some extent, this all derives from Stonehenge and other standing stones, filtered through the sensibilities of writers that include H.P. Lovecraft. Dangerous holes in reality lurk everywhere, behind which terrible things wait to erupt into our reality. Everything you know is wrong! Don’t touch that rock!
I really like Brian Keene. He’s one of the very, very few practitioners of ultraviolent horror who doesn’t make me either vomitous or bored (or vomitous with boredom). He’s a terrific synthesizer of the mundane and the fantastic, and his cosmogony really is an interesting piece of work. Maybe Ghost Walk delivers too much exposition when it comes to explaining the supernatural order of things in this particular fictional universe, but that exposition is pretty fascinating. Lovecraft would have approved.
A grieving, small-town Pennsylvania widower decides to honour his wife’s memory by doing something charitable. He hits upon the idea of creating a Ghost Walk, a horrifying (for fun) stroll through the woods, with the dark forest’s own after-nightfall fearsomeness augmented by various manmade scares along the way. Proceeds will go to charity. What could possibly go worng?
Well, the woods the widower uses for the Ghost Walk border on LeHorn’s Hollow, a creepy place burned out by a recent forest fire, a creepy place where murders and disappearances have taken place over hundreds of years, including a recent slew of murders attributed to a cult. Now, if any town really had a place with this bad a documented reputation, I’m pretty sure someone would cough up the bucks to fence it off. But the bad place, no matter how bad, is never fenced off in a horror novel. It is there to fuck you up! Maybe we’ll even build a golf course on it!
Almost needless to say, soon a small, disparate group of people will have to come together to stop an ancient evil from breaking into our universe. I like what Keene does with his cast of characters, as he’s shown here and elsewhere that he’s not interested in giving us the same cast of heterosexual Caucasians so many genre writers do. Here, a lapsed Muslim reporter and a lapsed Amish magician (!) carry a heavy burden of responsibility for saving the world.
The supernatural menace is sublime in its ambitions and powers, and deftly sketched by Keene with the smaller, sad horrors it inflicts on people (and animals) in pursuit of its own world-destroying pleasures. To make universe-annihilating evil truly disturbing, it helps a lot to clearly define the small awfulnesses it enjoys — such things are viscerally graspable in a way that ‘it’s going to eat the world’ aren’t.
I’d have liked a longer novel, but the relative brevity certainly keeps things rollicking along. The (real) spellbook The Long-Lost Friend puts in an appearance here, making readers of Manly Wade Wellman’s John the Balladeer series smile. The moral is, if you come across a mysterious grouping of rocks somewhere, don’t move them. Or, frankly, go anywhere near them. Recommended.