Category: horror novel

Stoned Immaculate

Shrine by James Herbert (1983): Late British “chiller” writer James Herbert is in fine form here with this lengthy supernatural thriller about miracles and monsters and money-grubbing. In a small town near Brighton, a 12-year-old girl seems to start performing miracles, from levitation to healing the sick. She says she’s operating on the behest of the Virgin Mary. But if so, why does she seem so focused on the ancient, weirdly twisted oak tree near her parish church?

Herbert deftly juggles a fairly large cast of characters, keeping things in the air while he also develops the supernatural and possibly psychic manifestations that begin to cause people from across Great Britain and, ultimately, the world, to flock to the small church. Meanwhile, the Roman Catholic authorities fast-track their investigation into whether or not these events can be classified as ‘true’ miracles worthy of endorsement by the Church.

The miracles are a bonanza for the town’s businesses and for the Roman Catholic Church. But as the girl seems to become more powerful, the skeptical parish priest seems to noticeably weaken and wither the longer he remains in close proximity to either her or the church. And whenever the girl heals people, terrible things happen to nearby livestock, a fact that goes unobserved by the general population.

A strange alliance will be created between the two priests who are skeptical of the whole affair and the ambitious, agnostic small-town journalist who first reported the story and has become famous because of it. But their efforts may be impotent, given the power the girl appears to possess.

Herbert really does a lovely job here of mixing deft characterization, social commentary, occasionally gruesome horror effects, and more rarefied moments of existential and psychological terror. A scene in the church basement amongst ancient, broken statues really does the job. So, too, does the finale, an apocalypse that manages to evoke pity as well as horror. Highly recommended.

L.A. Meltdown

Dark Seeker by K.W. Jeter (1987): Subtle and gradually building horror novel about the aftermath of a California incident that managed to combine something like the Manson Family with a psychoactive drug that seemed to create a shared consciousness among those who used it.

The charismatic, insane psychiatrist who ran the drug trial — and created the murderous group — now languishes in an asylum for the criminally insane. Several of the participants who did not actually murder anyone are free, but they need to take a pharmacopia of drugs several times a day to remain sane: the consciousness drug’s effects on the human body are permanent and persistently intrusive.

While the main narrative thread follows recovering cult member Michael Tylers’s attempts to remain sane and build a new life with his girlfriend and her son, other plotlines (all of which will eventually dovetail with Tyler’s story) show us the journalist who made a ton of money with the True Crime book about the cult and a homeless man named Jimmy who’s been enlisted by one of the most dangerous, uncaptured cult members to take care of a mysterious child stolen by that cult member from Michael’s ex-wife, who’s finally been re-arrested by the police after hiding out in L.A. for several years.

Jeter does a nice job of keeping things at least somewhat ambiguous throughout. Those who take the drug believe that they encounter a being they call the Host, which exhorts them to commit terrible acts. But is it real, and if so, is it supernatural (which is to say, some sort of demon), or is it some sort of psychic projection of the shared consciousness of the drug users? From the outside, though, the verdict of the legal system, and of popular opinion, is that everything about the drug is fake, including the shared-consciousness effect. The cult members went bananas. That is all.

Dark Seeker manages to make even the mercenary, grasping journalist sympathetic, at least towards the end, as he finally gets to experience violent events first-hand. Jeter’s characterization of the occasionally unlikeable Tyler, homeless Jimmy, and girlfriend Steff, who’s recovering herself from a life of terrible relationship choices and physical abuse, is both strong and subtle. The Host itself is a disturbing presence when it appears (or seems to appear), and Jeter describes the sensory distortions of the drug with hallucinatory elan. And the book ends with a stunner of a final ten pages.

Problems? I’d have liked some more development of what exactly happened with the cult and its charismatic leader — it almost seems as if some more heavily expository sections were cut so as to keep the page count down. The only other real problem is the title, which really should be something like The Host or The Dark Host. Again, this seems like decision-making at the publishing or editorial level. Recommended.

Bedford Falls

The Keeper by Sarah Langan (2006): This atmospheric and chilling horror novel features first-rate characterization and the development of a real sense of place. Langan sets her first novel in the small, depressed Maine town of Bedford — and over the course of the novel, Bedford falls. Ghosts and monsters walk the streets.

Indeed, the sheeted dead really do squeak and gibber in the Bedford streets at points, along with other monsters. The monsters of Bedford, though, are the manifestations of all its buried secrets. They have not invaded from Outside.

Langan uses third-person narration to delve into the inner lives of several characters, and does so skillfully without neglecting the atmospheric description necessary to showing the physical and social disintegration of the town as a whole, as both place and imaginative gestalt. At points, she “cuts loose” with visceral, physical horrors, but these things never take over the narrative. This is not a gross-out.

As with so much horror, supernatural events arise from human failure. Child abuse and alcoholism are the chief sins explored here, along with the morally corrosive effects of keeping secrets on both the personal and civic level. Bedford has its own skeletons, literal and figurative, in its closet. The closing of its primary industry before the novel begins becomes, over the course of the novel, a judgment on the town’s failings — and then it becomes something more complex and affecting.

Langan’s characters are nicely developed, and their fates, for the most part, evade boiler-plate horror conventions. Startling moments in which the supernatural bursts into the “real” world abound. Through it all, Langan builds a convincing supernatural world populated by flawed human beings. There’s evil here, but also hard-won goodness, very faint, very human, absolutely necessary. Recommended.