Friday, September 11, 2015

You Won't Believe It's Not Stephen King

Demon Night by J. Michael Straczynski (1988): Babylon 5 creator  and long-time Spider-man writer J. Michael Straczynski has also written three horror novels over the years, with this being the first. It almost seems parodically like a Stephen King novel at points. It's laced with portentous and generally pretentious quotes at the beginning and at each section break, which is very much a King trademark (lest we miss the point,  Straczynski quotes King on the novel's main epigraph page). It's set in small-town Maine, it involves a former resident of that town as a child returning as an adult, and it involves an ancient evil awakening and transforming townspeople into monsters. Yes, it bears more than a passing resemblance to King's Salem's Lot, only with possession-crazy demons rather than vampirism as the culprit. 

The cast of characters who battle the evil includes a struggling writer, a Roman Catholic priest, and a medical doctor. OK, that's also quite a bit like the good guys in Salem's Lot. But wait, the protagonist has a wide array of psychic and telekinetic powers with which to battle the evil. So it's like Salem's Lot mashed up with Firestarter, The Shining, and The Dead Zone. There's also quite a bit of It. And there are Native American tribes mixed in because you can't have an American horror novel without a mysterious location tied into Native American spirituality.

Basically, if you haven't gotten enough Stephen King, Maine-based horror over the years, this novel may be for you. Straczynski offers generally well-drawn, sympathetic characters. The antagonist leaves a bit to be desired -- its speechifying, when it comes, is something of a disappointment. There's also a description of the Thing in its final form that really, really seems to anticipate South Park's ManBearPig. Snakes, cockroaches, and what appear to be malevolent, wall-crawling lobsters (well, it is Maine) show up in such a cursory fashion as obstacles to our heroes at the end that they seem to have accidentally wandered in from an Indiana Jones movie. 

And it's interesting to see a Wild Talent novel collided with a horror novel in this way, at least at the end when a full array of telepathic and telekinetic powers are needed to combat the antagonist. There's maybe a bit too much superhero in the main protagonist, but he's a relatively likable fellow for all that he's a Chosen One in the long tradition of genre Chosen Ones (though the Chosen One tends more to the epic fantasy and science fiction areas of genre).

The gem of characterization is the Roman Catholic priest, however, who takes a beating without ever losing his stubborn dignity. Why do atheists write the best characters of faith? In any case, I enjoyed the novel, though there's nothing that really stands out about it. Lightly recommended.

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