Friday, September 9, 2016

Don't Go Back to Dunnville, Waste Another Year

Touch of the Past (1988) by Jon L. Breen: Pleasant, short mystery sees California bookstore owner and amateur sleuth Rachel Hennings try to solve the mystery of a murdered mystery writer who was obsessed with the year 1937. Red herrings abound, characterization is thin but tolerable, and more inside secrets of the used book trade would have been nice. Lightly recommended.

Crimson (2002) by Gord Rollo: Things start off promisingly in Canadian horror writer Gord Rollo's Crimson. Four boys in a small town (Dunnville, Ontario, to be exact) stumble across an ancient evil. Things get bad, fast. The novel jumps from 1977 to 1986 to the mid-2000's. The increasingly 'and-the-kitchen-sink' approach to the supernatural involves a certain number of homages to such superior 'children vs. ancient evil' novels as Stephen King's It (giant spider! kid wants to be a writer!), Dan Simmons' Summer of Night (evil scarecrow! kid wants to be a writer!), and Ray Bradbury's Something Wicked This Way Comes (the evil returns periodically!).

Rollo's time-jumps move the novel away from It and company and unfortunately into the realm of 'Why research anything when you can just fake it?'.  This is a novel set in small-town Canada in its first two sections, though there's nothing particularly Canadian about anything. Alas, section two involves a police investigation that starts off laughable and rapidly becomes ridiculous. 

Poor old Dunnville is left to fend for itself, except for the loan of eight officers from other towns, as a serial killer racks up a double-digit murder total in a couple of weeks. Really? It's 1986. Are there no TV stations, no newspapers that aren't local? Given the small size of Dunnville, one might think the province -- and the Ontario Provincial Police -- would be sent in to help. One would be wrong. Hoo boy. 

Then we jump to the mid-2000's, and an absurd prison sequence. Someone gets sent to a Toronto penitentiary for murders he didn't commit. And what a penitentiary! Not only is it worse than Shawshank Prison and the Turkish prison in Midnight Express put together, it's got an overall prisoner death rate that clocks in at about ten times the national average for that time period. Possibly 100X. Alas. Hey, there's an attempted prison break that involves a sewer pipe! There's an electric chair scene! Yes, Canada has brought back the death penalty because I'm not going to spoil how and why that happened! Rita Hayworth is on the Green Mile with It!

Section three also gives us a lengthy Basil Exposition sequence in which the terrible monster explains its entire life history and its cunning plan to its victim. Then, as the monster's supernatural powers consist of Whatever the Novel Needs Right Now, it hangs around to intermittently taunt our death-row prisoner for several years. It floats. Not down there, but up by the ceiling, invisible and inaudible and, given its decayed condition, presumably unsmellable to all but our hero. As its pointless electric chair plot moves to its climax, it's just hanging around laughing and laughing. It even steals our protagonist's last meal! Quel horreur! This is the worst monster in human history!

The novel climaxes with a twist that doesn't make much sense even when it's explained a chapter after that twist. Prior to that, we also get a explanation of What Hell is Really Like that reads like something Todd Macfarlane rejected for his Spawn comic, and which destroys all remaining shreds of the suspension of disbelief the novel has left. 

Some of the loopier supernatural elements might work in a novel that paid much, much more attention to the verisimilitude of its police and prison sequences. Though the villain, a centuries-old being who talks like an annoying bully in an episode of Buffy, becomes less and less interesting the more he talks. And talks. And talks. 

There's even a point at which the monster notes that it was known as Baron Bloodshed. This would make a lot more sense if it weren't known as Baron Bloodshed in Eastern Europe in the 14th century. If nothing else, the protagonist misses a chance for a real zinger by not asking if Baron Bloodshed is alliterative in whatever non-English tongue the monster was speaking at the time. 

Not all the problems are the writer's. A good editor should have suggested changes, especially to the second and third parts. And presumably suggested that a monster that never stops talking isn't a monster, it's just a bad room-mate. Not recommended.

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