Deadlight Jack by Mark Onspaugh. Jimmy Kalmaku and George Watters are best friends, but neither one is the typical horror novel hero. They're both in their seventies, Jimmy is a Tlingit man from a small village in Alaska, and George is a black man from Georgia. They first met and became friends in a nursing home, in the previous book. I didn't actually realize that this was the second book in a series when I started reading it, but I had no problem following along.
Jimmy and George's quiet life is disrupted when George's grandson goes missing while hiking with his mothers in a Louisiana swamp (his parents are a lesbian couple, which was treated with such amazing nonchalance that I actually didn't notice the first few references and had to go back and check. I don't know if it was a bigger deal in the first book, but I loved how normal and unremarkable it was treated here). George is determined to save his grandchild, but he first has to deal with his estranged children and the lost memories of his own childhood. The boy turns out to have been called away by Deadlight Jack, aka Professor Foxfire, a monstrous creature who dresses like a circus ringmaster and has the face of whatever kindly man the onlooker prefers. He controls the will-o-the-wisps, the ghosts of alligators, and fire-setting salamanders. He lures away small children, leading them to wander the swamp until they fade away into ghosts hungry for blood and life. There's elements of real folklore here – bits and pieces of various urban legends – but combined into a new whole that made for a fantastic villain.
The writing reminded me a lot of Stephen King, as well as the way the supernatural horror reflected the characters' troubled relationships and internal struggles. My favorite part, however, was the friendship between George and Jimmy, which is absolutely adorable. Here they are after getting lost in the swamp:
He tried not to think about George hurt or worse, he just concentrated on looking for signs that the man had been this way. He couldn’t see anything, and wondered if he was going the wrong way. Should he rely on his intuition?
Please, if there is anyone to help me, please . . .
Jimmy cleared his mind, hoping for some revelation.
He heard something then. Something sad and yet wonderful.
He picked his way past a collection of cypress stumps, all ragged and looking like ancient fairy castles in the beam of his flashlight.
There was George, his pant leg snarled in a bramble.
“Goddammit,” he said.
“George,” Jimmy said, hoping not to startle him, but George jumped.
Jimmy came closer. “It’s me, it’s Jimmy.”
George squinted at the light. “Jimmy?”
Jimmy felt close to sobbing. “It’s me, old man.”
“Old? I’m not the one who sent love letters to Cleopatra,” said George, trying valiantly to put on a brave face, but Jimmy could tell he had been scared to death.
Jimmy helped George free himself. His clothes were torn and muddy and his hat was gone.
“You lost your hat,” Jimmy offered.
“Thank you, Mr. Holmes, did you bring Dr. Watson with you?”
“No, but I brought you some food and water . . . and a flashlight.”
George’s look of gratitude was so pitiful that Jimmy was sure he himself was going to start crying and embarrass George even more. Instead, he made a business of finding the sandwiches in his bag.
SO CUTE, RIGHT? Overall it wasn't the deepest or most stylistic of books, but I enjoyed its unusual characters and well-done horror. I'll be seeking out the first book in the series and looking forward to sequels in the future.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
In the Valley, Where Belladonna Grows by Tim Lebbon. A novella/short story (my copy was 65 pages) about an old woman who lives alone, entirely self-sufficient, in an isolated valley. She hasn't even seen another human being in 16 years – at least until the opening pages, when a man appears on the road from the distant city, bringing news and unwelcome changes.
The writing is lovely and subtly creepy, with an increasing sense of wrongness conveyed through small natural details: a too-strong storm, a dead bird, a feral dog gone mad. The backstory is told through scattered flashbacks, filling in how the woman originally came to live in the valley, while her knowledge of all that has gone wrong in the world outside slowly increases through the hints dropped by her visitors. There's a slight sense of unreality in how thoroughly the woman is tied to her home, and how she can sense disorder within her valley just by closing her eyes.
All of this is pretty great, and I was enjoying it and looking forward to seeing how the various plot threads would be resolved – and then came the twist ending. Granted, it's not the worst execution of this particular twist I've ever seen (it's a common ending), but it's so much less interesting than everything that came before it that I couldn't help but be disappointed. Overall, this was 62 pages of a wonderful story and 3 of a mediocre one.
I read this as an ARC via NetGalley.
What are you currently reading?
Big Machine by Victor Lavalle. This was supposed to be part of my October horror reads, but it's not turning out to be a very scary book so far. There is some paranormal stuff going on, so it could still turn into horror!
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