Saturday, April 2, 2016

Demons and Ghost-dogs

The Deceased (1999) by Tom Piccirilli:  The late and much-lamented Tom Piccirilli's early horror novels were uniquely strange. Strange events, strange creatures, strange protagonists. The simplest of plot-lines could suddenly stop dead for disturbingly violent and/or sexual set-pieces. Characters might spend pages immersed in their own poetic maladjustment. The prose would push the limits of the purple and the florid, sometimes going way, way beyond the red-line. And it all worked as the expression of someone who wanted more out of the horror novel than simply plain prose and A-Z plotting.

The Deceased embodies Piccirilli's approach to horror. Indeed, there's almost no point describing it in all its pulpy, poetic, weird glory. It's about a young horror writer wrestling with the demons of his terrible past. Some of those demons are deceased members of his own family. There's pathetic fallacy and incest and tips on writing (seriously). There are strange things in the forest surrounding the ancestral home. There's that ancestral home with its weird construction and hideous facade. There are ghosts and monsters and voices from the past.

To borrow a phrase from somebody, it's all a bravura frenzy. It's also the sort of writing that seems to drive a certain type of reader, one looking for the straightforward and the plain style, completely nuts. You're watching a gifted writer assemble and disassemble himself simultaneously. It may not always be pretty, coherent, or even 'good' in a traditional sense, but it's compelling and very human. Recommended.

The Midnight Road (2007) by Tom Piccirilli:  40ish Flynn is a case-worker for New York City's Child Protective Services.  He's a broken soul due to childhood tragedy. But he's also dogged and committed to child welfare. And a huge fan of film noir. So of course he gets involved in a noirish case with hints of (possible) supernatural horror.

The late Tom Piccirilli wrote a string of noirish thrillers beginning in the early oughts. This is one of them. It lacks the exuberant stylistic flourishes of some of his earlier horror works, but it's plotted beautifully, with twists that are difficult to see coming.

Flynn is very much the damaged would-be knight of noir and hard-boiled detective stories, emotionally stunted but heroically struggling against demons inside and outside. The character's own investment in noir makes for a sort of running meta-commentary on the action, as Flynn notes ways in which his own story does or does not resemble the noir films he loves so much.

Piccirilli tamps down his stylistic flourishes for, I assume, reasons of commercial viability: a person has to eat. But they also suit the noir and hard-boiled genres he's working with. Stylistic outliers like James Ellroy exist, but for the most part the hard-boiled heroes and anti-heroes and straight-out villains of Piccirilli's genre antecedents work within a world of flavourful but not wildly experimental or impressionistic prose. 

The result is that old chestnut, a page-turner, one which doesn't end until Flynn has dealt with his internal demons. The identities of the antagonists come as a shock, but a fair one. Flynn, sympathetic and self-lacerating, makes for a fine protagonist. And touches of the absurd -- Flynn finds himself haunted by the talking ghost of a French bulldog, probably the result of slight brain damage incurred early in the novel. In all, a very satisfying ride on The Midnight Road. Recommended.

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