Sunday, October 25, 2009

Dark Hollow

Brian Keene (Darkness on the Edge of Town, Castaways, Ghost Walk, Ghoul) has been called the "king of the mid-list horror writers", and with good reason. It's hard to imagine a writer other than Stephen King working in horror who has as dedicated a following, evidenced by the fact that, in a time when re-sale prices for "collectible" limited edition books are plummeting, Keene's are beginning to appreciate. One of these days, he will break through the invisible barrier that separates the mid-list from those few whose books first see publication in more readily available hardbacks. Dark Hollow is actually the first mass market publication of an earlier Keene novel, The Rutting Season (a superior, if less marketable, title). Keene has been so consistently good readers must be wondering when he will turn out a dud, but it doesn’t happen here. After finishing it, I can say that Dark Hollow is my second favorite Keene novel, after Ghoul.

The protagonist of Dark Hollow is a midlist writer named Adam Senft, who is a fairly obvious doppelganger for Keene himself (the novel is told in first person from Senft’s point of view, and reads very much like Keene’s blog). Senft is living a comfortable life in southwestern Pennsylvania, with a good wife and a loving, if cowardly, dog. He is friends with his neighbors, and the only serpent in his personal Garden of Eden is the inability of his wife to carry a child to term, something that has created a distance between them, but they are trying to work through. This all comes to an end when Adam, on a walk with his dog, sees one of his neighbors performing fellatio on a statue (who hasn’t run across that?).

This would be only kinky, but the statue comes to life. It turns out the statue was an imprisoned satyr, who begins abducting women from the area in order to procreate with them. Adam and his friends fight the creature, and suffer grave losses along the way.

I liked the way Keene uses a creature rarely seen in horror of late, the satyr, which was a staple of early and pre 20th century horror stories. It is also welcome to see Keene, who is a student of the genre as well as a writer, pay tribute to earlier writers, naming an archaeologist after Welsh writer Arthur Machen, who explored similar themes, and to Manly Wade Wellman’s character Silver John. Machen's literary creation, Nodens, also appears in the mythology constituting the novel's backstory. The action flows well, as we have come to expect from Keene, but the characters are possibly more sympathetic than in any other of his work. There is also a sly element of humor in the book, which, in keeping with Stephen King’s observation that humor and horror are closely related, adds a lot of enjoyment to the reading.

Keene has said that all of his work is connected in one great cycle known as The Labyrinth. When I first heard this, I wasn’t too sure about it. Many authors, trying to make their stories fit into the same continuity, do so at the expense of the individual story at hand. With Ghoul and Dark Hollow, I am beginning to appreciate the larger view. The events in Dark Hollow contain both explicit and implicit references to other Keene work (for example, the powwow farmer Nelson LeHorn is mentioned in Ghoul, and one of the characters from Terminal pops up here), and it is beginning to whet my appetite to see more of The Labyrinth.

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