Saturday, March 08, 2008

Ooooo, Scary

Horror has to have one of the lowest quality to junk ratios in all of genre fiction. While mysteries writers manage to nod to their pulp origins while remaining intelligent, horror writers tend to wallow in excess in escalating attempts to overwhelm jaded readers. So when you find someone like Joe Schreiber who writes horror novels well, it is worth getting excited.

His first novel, Chasing the Dead, was a solid horror/suspense hybrid that set Schrieber up to be one of the leading lights in genuinely scary horror writing. His second novel, Eat the Dark, fulfills the promise of the first.

The set-up is a tad pedestrian. Frank Snow, a jailed serial killer so vile that characters shudder upon hearing his name, needs a MRI and is being brought into a hospital due to close the next day. As it is understaffed, only a few police medical personnel and their families , including MRI tech Mike Hughes, are there that night. No prizes for guessing what happens.

Schrieber gets away with this because his plot is well constructed, his characters are realistically flawed and he provides just the right amount of information. Most horror (or even mystery, thriller and scifi) plots hide a major secret and then hit the reader with a big reveal, which is often a let down. Schrieber slowly (Ok, as slow as you can in a 200 page novel) ladles out developments, with enough information to keep the suspense building. Frank Snow treats his victims in a peculiar way, hunting some and testing others.

The tested people are confronted with many of their secrets. Like characters in a Stephen King novel, these characters cheat on their spouses, drink too much and are happy to do bad to make a buck or two. While these make the story seem more real, like Lost, the backgrounds tie back into the story.

Finally and this is perhaps most important, Schrieber provides just enough information to either scare or intrigues the reader. We never really learn what Snow did to his victims, Mike just recalls "grainy newspaper photos of a remote barn with black stained ropes and chains on the floor, notes, piles of clothes and sneakers in corner." There is a reference of sorts to Blair Witch, another movie that is parsimonious with the detail. Later, as the story becomes increasingly strange, Schrieber also evokes dread by balancing what he says and doesn't say.

I'm looking forward to what he does next and I hope other writers are paying attention.

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