Monday, October 17, 2016

Horrors Quiet, Horrors Loud

The Thief of Broken Toys (2011) by Tim Lebbon: This lovely, lonely, haunting short novel is a thing of disturbing beauty from Tim Lebbon. There's a Ray Bradbury quality to some of the story elements (especially that eponymous being). But it's the leaner Bradbury of the 1940's, the one capable of horror. 

The loss of a son to an undiagnosed genetic disorder has left the novel's protagonist, the boy's father, in an emotional purgatory as The Thief of Broken Toys begins. His wife struggles to move on -- in part by having left him. He stays at home, for the most part, where he's been for the most part of a year. And then, on one of his nightly walks on the English sea coast, he encounters the eponymous being -- an old man who offers him the ability to heal. Beware strangers bearing supernatural gifts, no matter how seemingly benign!

I don't know that all of the elements work. The occasionally intruding narration speaks to larger things outside the events of the novel, but it never entirely convinced me, or at least convinced me that it was necessary to the tragedy and horror of the story itself. Nonetheless, this is stellar work from Lebbon. 

Technically this is 'quiet horror,' but it's horror nonetheless. And the final catastrophe horrifies without any blood being spilled or tentacled monster making an appearance. Actually, a tentacled monster would probably have been comforting. Highly recommended.


The Keep (1981) by F. Paul Wilson: F. Paul Wilson's first 'big' novel is also his best. A dreadful movie adaptation in the mid-1980's, directed by Michael Mann, got pretty much everything wrong about Wilson's original. The Keep is a clever synthesis of vampire novel, cosmic horror, and high fantasy, though that last bit doesn't become evident until the last 50 pages or so. Its best horror moments come in its first half, while the full nature of the adversary remains hidden from reader and characters alike.

The Keep would soon be folded into Wilson's 'Adversary Cycle,' a six-novel arc that is itself part of a much larger body of work dubbed 'The Secret History of the World' that includes Wilson's multi-volume Repairman Jack series. My version of The Keep ends without any sort of cliffhanger or 'stinger' ending, but this may not be true of later editions of the novel. Wilson rewrote a number of novels to eradicate inconsistencies within both the Cycle and the Secret History.

The genius of The Keep lies in its use of the Nazis as foils to the greater evil growing inside the Keep. It's 1941. Much of the action occurs in an isolated part of Romania where German infantry have been entrusted with taking control of that mysterious Keep. The name itself is a misnomer -- there was never a castle surrounding the structure, and the name was simply attached as a matter of convenience. Why are there unusually designed crosses embedded in the walls of the Keep? Why does anyone who tries to sleep there awake from nightmares of confinement? Who's been paying to maintain the Keep with a long line of well-recompensed villagers from an adjacent village for the last 500 years? And why has the German Army Captain in charge of the Keep telegrammed High Command to ask for help because "something is killing my men"?

Well, there's the novel. Wilson's strongest character work involves the fraught relationship between the German Army Captain and the SS Major sent to deal with the problem. The Captain hates the Nazis, but he's also a loyal soldier. The SS Major is a coward and a sadist who dreams of the money to be made once he takes control of Nazi preparations in Ploesti for the coming Romanian Holocaust. As problems at the Keep continue despite the SS presence, they agree to summon a Romanian-Jewish scholar who's the world's only known authority on the Keep. As the scholar has been crippled by a wasting disease, along with him comes his bright, unmarried daughter.

Props where props are due: that daughter makes for an interesting and unusual character in a horror novel written by a young man in the late 1970's and early 1980's. She becomes the focus of the third-person narrative, and Wilson makes her a compelling figure who wants a life of intellectual achievement in a world where both her gender and her ethnicity stand against any such achievement. While this character is put in jeopardy on numerous occasions, Wilson never makes her a stereotypical female victim. By the climax of the novel, she's one of the two most important characters in terms of opposing the ancient dark force inside the Keep.

As noted, the strongest moments of horror come in the first half, as a mysterious, unseen force stalks the Keep. But the revelation of the horror doesn't immediately deflate the narrative of its mystery: the creature explains what it is, but there are odd gaps and curiosities in its story. And the discovery of a cache of Lovecraftian banned texts points the way towards an explanation that has nothing to do with vampires or werewolves or ghosts. And they are literally Lovecraftian texts, the Necronomicon and a number of other fictional 'banned' books mentioned by H.P. Lovecraft and his fellow Cthulhuists over the years in a nod by Wilson to his American horror forerunners.

Once the novel passes that midway point, elements of a more conventional thriller begin to blend with elements of both dark and high fantasy. There are even riffs on the sort of material made popular by The Lord of the Rings and Robert E. Howard's Conan series. But Wilson also keeps things rooted in the historical setting of 1941 Eastern Europe, with the seemingly unstoppable Nazis about to embark on their betrayal of the Soviet Union. It's a relatively long novel, but it's briskly told in Wilson's competent, unflashy prose.  To nod to an old chestnut, if you read one novel by F. Paul Wilson, it should be this one. Highly recommended.

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