Hardboiled Magic

Hexes by Tom Piccirilli (1999): Odd, engaging horror novel with a lot of black magic thrown into the mix. 24-year-old Matthew Galen returns to his relatively small hometown after five years away for a reckoning with the Satanic force that calls itself the Goat. Thanks to the subterranean presence of the Goat, the town of Summerfell is a supernatural hotbed, with demons and ghosts running around all over the place.

The novel’s strengths rest almost entirely on the quality of its prose, which is suitably overheated without slipping into the purple too often. Red herrings and undeveloped plot and character threads abound to such an extent that the novel almost seems as if it’s been heavily edited down from a much longer work. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing once one realizes that many of the Chekov’s Guns one would normally expect to go off by the end of the narrative are actually never coming off the wall.

Piccirilli, who also writes non-supernatural suspense novels, often gets cited as a sort of hybridized hardboiled horror writer. It’s a suitable judgment for this novel, which has the structure and the atmosphere of a detective novel. And Matthew Galen is one of those tarnished knights.

If there’s a major complaint, it’s that Matthew and his friends seem much too young to support the mournful nostalgia of the ‘You Can’t Go Home Again’ portions of the narrative. Magic and loss may have prematurely aged Galen and company, but the weight of lost time seems out of proportion to the actuality of the time passed. What festers in nearly everyone and everything associated with Summerfell never entirely feels earned by the diminished time-scale of the narrative. It’s as if the kids in Stephen King’s It returned to Derry right after college graduation to finish the job, rather than 28 years later.

That Galen has become a critically lauded New York playwright in the five years he’s been away also seems odd. Actually, the whole idea that he’s a playwright is never developed in his internal narrative — we mainly have people saying things like ‘Wow, you’re a famous playwright now!’ and nothing beyond that. Why is he a playwright? It’s an occupation made anomalous by the lack of development in the text, suggesting either the removal of much of the material about his career, or a nod to Jack Torrance’s writing career in The Shining that stays entirely at the level of a brief tip of the cap.

But this is an early-career novel, and there’s much that’s laudable about it. The sequences that deal with the theory and practice of magic suggest that Marvel could do an awful lot worse than to hire Piccirilli to revive Dr. Strange. Recommended.

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