Wednesday, 4 December 2019

When mist and frost enhance the horror


Okay, it’s early December and winter is here. Not only that, it’s been a cold one so far.  All of which has made me think that, as my GAZETTEER OF STRANGE, EERIE PLACES 4  is just about due, perhaps it would be apt if we this time visited somewhere that’s infamous for its cold and atmospheric winter seasons. As such, today we’re going to the USA for the first time ever in this series, where we’ll be focussing on NEW ENGLAND.

On a not completely dissimilar subject – weird goings-on in hometown America – I’ll also be reviewing and discussing Dean Koontz’s chilling crime/horror novel crossover, WHAT THE NIGHT KNOWS.

If you’re only here for the Koontz review, that’s perfectly fine by me. Head straight on down to the bottom of today’s blog, the usual place where my reviews go, and you’ll find it there. However, if you’ve got a couple of minutes to spare, we have a few other things you might be interested in first.

Still misty out there

If anyone assumes that my autumn publication, SEASON OF MIST, is now dead and buried for 12 months because Halloween and Bonfire Night are over, please think again.

SEASON OF MIST covers the whole autumn quadrant of the year, running from late-August through to mid-December. Its grand finale is set amid snow, with Christmas just around the corner. So, you see, it’s still very very relevant.

Which means that this is the perfect time for me to announce that SEASON OF MIST on AUDIBLE is now up and available to download. It’s narrated, very beautifully I have to say, by actor GREG PATMORE, who completely captures the spirit of the novella.

So, there you go. There is still plenty time to immerse yourself in this autumn/winter tale of murder and horror in Britain during the 1970s. More to the point, Greg’s flawless narration will take you right there without you having to do any work at.

And now we go …

Stateside

Last January, I began a new occasional feature on this blog: Gazetteer of Strange, Eerie Places.

The first one, on January 9, presented a round-up of my top 20 strange and scary places in BRITAIN AND IRELAND. It gained an immediate positive response from regulars on here, encouraging me to go again. And so, on May 31, my second feature in the series looked at the top 20 strange and scary in WESTERN EUROPE. As before, there was a hugely approving response, which confirmed that I could now run these articles regularly, visiting different locations all over the Earth. You may recall that on July 24 – very appropriately for the time of year – we went down to the MEDITERRANEAN.

Now, with much colder weather looming, and in an effort to keep things appropriate, we’re travelling far across the world, for the first time taking in the US (and a region that has featured prominently in dark and eerie fiction for countless decades).

Episode 4 will assess the horrors and mysteries of NEW ENGLAND.

‘Ancient’ is a very difficult word to apply to the USA. The landmass did have ancient peoples, of course, many of whom have now passed out of history, others living as remnants, only pursuing their traditional cultures in small reserved areas. North America is very much the heart of the modern world. In the early days of settlement, it was referred to simply as the ‘New World’. And from a British perspective, this applied specifically to New England, where the earliest Crown colonies were formed. However, there’s an irony there, because New England isn’t new anymore. The name itself was coined by English adventurer, John Smith, as far back as 1616. It’s also known much violence and atrocity since then, hosting the French and Indian Wars and many of the battles fought during America’s struggles for independence.

So, while it isn’t ancient, New England is certainly old and experienced, and this is reflected today in its many age-old towns, its ivy-clad mansions and crumbling graveyards, not to mention its plethora of mysterious tales and doubtful yarns. And New England doesn’t just rely on homespun folklore to evoke an atmosphere of the strange. In terms of natives and/or residents, it boasts some genuine masters and mistresses of the spooky story, everyone from Nathaniel Hawthorne to Shirley Jackson, from HP Lovecraft to Stephen King.   

Anyway, I won’t keep waffling on. After mentioning the likes of King, Lovecraft and Jackson, I’m sure I don’t need to say much more. Just enjoy (and feel free to comment on) ...


GAZETTEER OF STRANGE, EERIE PLACES 4: 
NEW ENGLAND

1 Cedar Swamp (Massachusetts)


A picturesque zone of historical and archaeological interest in eastern Massachusetts. Quite extensive – 2,600 acres – it primarily comprises marsh and woodland but is well known for its provision of Native American artifacts. It’s also notorious for a Native American legend, specifically one belonging to the Wampanoag tribe, that a race of half-men secretly inhabits these eerie woods, known as the Pukwudgies. It sounds amusing, and the Pukwudgies – who are said to be short and grey-skinned, with black spiky hair, bestial features and the power to work magic – may seem like an American version of our European goblins and trolls, but in truth they are very far from being a joke. Ancient Wampanoag legend tells of the Pukwudgies kidnapping children, burning villages and murdering lone travellers. In modern times, they allegedly confine their behaviour to trickster-type activities, leading lost individuals ever deeper into the swamp, and then throwing sticks, stones and even spears at them. People have been reported missing, and there are stories of others being struck by mysterious missiles and in a couple of cases blinded by them.

2 Downs Road (Connecticut)


A six-mile stretch of dirt road leading through deep woods in coastal Connecticut, which once connected the towns of Hamden and Bethany, but now leads to nowhere from nowhere, and is allegedly the haunt of many mysterious and menacing beings. As far as can be seen, there is no obvious reason why Downs Road has such an evil reputation. It boasts no established history of occult or paranormal activity and seems to have been closed simply because a new bypass was opened nearby and left it redundant. It partly occupies land now owned by the local water company, and you don’t get much more mundane than that. But stories of Downs Road weirdness persist, and they are legion. UFOs have allegedly been sighted hovering overhead, ghosts apparently lurk in the various ruins dotted along its overgrown verge, and at least two monsters are reputed to roam the entire length of it after dark: an albino horse and a shaggy, Bigfoot-type humanoid. The road is supposedly closed to the public at either end, but access is infamously easy, and gangs of boozy teens regularly check it out, which may account for some of the more outlandish tales. However, wiser heads still advise that you should give it wide berth. 

3 Allagash River (Maine)


The sight of a celebrated if made-to-measure UFO abduction story, which later became a subject of controversy. The Allagash Wilderness Waterway cuts through the picturesque North Maine Woods, and is popular with canoeists, anglers, hunters, and wildlife enthusiasts. In August 1976, four men were camping in this isolated locality when they became concerned that they were continually spotting a mysterious bright light in the night sky. On one occasion, when they were out on the water, it came very close. The men panicked, especially as they then found themselves ashore with no memory of how they’d got there, while the fire built earlier had burned out and was stone-cold. Later, after returning home, they began suffering nightmares about undergoing horrific experiments at the hands of aliens. Under hypnosis, they each told a similar terrifying tale, though not all UFO researchers were convinced they were being honest. Later, one of the men retracted the abduction part of the story, saying that it was an invention designed to win financial gain, though the others insisted that it was all true. All four maintain that the weird lights in the sky were real, and later visitors to the area have reported the same.    

4 Montpelier (Vermont)


Vermont is infamous for its bitter winters, and the area around Montpelier, in the north of the state, harbours a particularly strange and macabre legend, which allegedly was attested to by eyewitnesses as recently as 1887. On December 21 that year, a journalist writing in the Montpelier Argus and Patriot described a trip into the hills the previous January, and a visit to a small farming community, wherein he watched a group of elderly and crippled residents – six in total – be drugged, stripped down to their underwear and left outside until they had frozen like logs. The six were then enclosed in straw-packed boxes and again left outside until the snow covered them. This, the journalist was horrified to learn, was to be their resting place until the following spring. More remarkable still, he returned next May, just in time to see all six resuscitated by being laid in warm baths filled with hemlock and then massaged back to wakefulness, with no apparent ill effects.  Needless to say, such a miracle is medically impossible, so no one knows how to take this curious tall tale. As modern-day Vermonters say, these days it’s best just to give the old folks extra thick socks and a nice warm blanket.

5 Fleur-de-Lys Studios (Rhode Island)


In 1928, HP Lovecraft’s seminal novella, The Call of Cthulhu, was published. It was one of the first occasions when the great horror author made a clear and conscious effort to establish the cosmology in which his many monstrous creations – the Great Old Ones – existed, and introduced his readers to Cthulhu himself, a malevolent, octopoid monstrosity, who, while hibernating in the sunken South Pacific city of R’lyeh, became a god to many evil cults existing in all corners of the globe. Lovecraft is not to everyone’s taste in the diversified 21st century, but novels and short stories derived from his mythos are still massively popular among horror, fantasy and sci-fi fans, and Cthulhu’s debut appearance sits at the very heart of that. Which brings us at last to the Fleur-de-Lys Studios in the age-old city of Providence, because they figure prominently in the story, serving as the fictional workplace of Henry Anthony Wilcox, a demented sculptor, who creates an image of Cthulhu after seeing him in a terrifying vision. Rather neatly, the real Studios are a genuine historic art building in the prosperous College Hill district of Providence, and perfectly embody the elegant architectural style so prevalent in Lovecraft’s writings.

6 Dogtown (Massachusetts)


The drear remains of a long-derelict settlement on Cape Ann on the northeast Massachusetts coast, now renowned as a site where ancient curses linger and ghosts walk. Even in the known history of Dogtown, there are mysteries. Though founded in 1693, most of its homes had collapsed by 1800 and it was inhabited mainly by outcasts and feral dogs. There is also the factor of the bizarre messages carved on boulders surrounding the town’s vicinity, which feed into the rumour that witches once lived there, terrorising passers-by with black magic, the residue of which is still believed to afflict the area with an aura of deep menace. On examination, some of these questions have mundane answers. For example, Dogtown obtained its curious name because in the years following the War of Independence the many widows who lived there acquired dogs for companions (the descendants of which became the feral packs that scoured the ruins in later decades), while the town itself was already emptying due to fear of coastal bombardment. However, the witchy stories are true. Dogtown once housed Tammy Younger, Queen of the Witches, who in the 1700s extorted goods from travellers by threatening them with hexes.   

7 Perron House (Rhode Island)


The site of a famous haunting in the early 1970s, made even more famous in 2013 by the horror movie, The Conjuring. The Perron family moved into the isolated 14-room farmhouse in 1971 and claim to have immediately become aware that it was filled with strange, menacing presences. Lots of what we would these days regard as standard haunted house phenomena were reported: bad smells, unexplained noises, doors opening and closing, items being thrown about. Research into the house’s past uncovered a long list of tragic events including fatal accidents, suicides and murders. It also revealed the occupation of the house in the 19th century by Bathsheba Sherman, who was allegedly a Satanist and a suspect in the killing of a child (though this didn’t prevent her being buried in a Baptist cemetery). According to the family, Bathsheba’s spirit was the most dangerous and violent, particularly as it made several attempts to possess individual members. Perhaps the most famous aspect of the case was the involvement of professional demonologists, Ray and Lorraine Warren, though their actual role in the story is still the subject of dispute. Other families who occupied the residence later reported no scary disturbances.

8 Bennington Triangle (Vermont)


Glastenbury Mountain sits at the heart of the Green Mountain National Forest in Vermont. It is part of the Green Mountains, an area of wild natural beauty. It is also, or so the rumourists insist, the central point of the so-called ‘Bennington Triangle’, which name derives from encircling Bennington County and is an obvious play on other notorious districts where mysteries abound, the Bermuda Triangle or the Bridgewater Triangle. One thing is certain, however: the strangeness here has a dark heart. At least five people have inexplicably vanished in the Bennington Triangle: three in the 1940s and two in 1950. In itself, that might sound like no big deal, but several of these disappearances were very unusual. One person, for example, vanished from a bus while travelling between stops, while another, a child, vanished from his mother’s parked car when her back was briefly turned. Four were never seen again despite wide searches, while one was found dead, though the cause of death was indeterminable. Folklorists point to a Native American myth that an evil monster prowls this region, a shapeless horror that disguises itself as a large rock, absorbing anyone unlucky enough to make contact with it.

9 Smuttynose Island (New Hampshire)


The splendidly named Smuttynose Island is one of the Isles of Shoals, a group of rocky islands located offshore at the border of Maine and New Hampshire. It is also the scene of a true-life horror story. John and Maren Hontvet were a hard-working Norwegian couple, who’d settled on the island in 1868 and started a lucrative fishing business. Generous souls, they offered work to one Louis Wagner, an unemployed German trawlerman who other islanders disliked. All appeared to be well in the group, even when other family members arrived. Wagner eventually sought work elsewhere, but his various ventures failed, and he finished up destitute in Portsmouth. In March 1873, learning that the menfolk among his former employers were away from Smuttynose Island on business, having left the women there alone, Wagner rowed back – a distance of 12 miles, a considerable feat but not impossible – broke into the family home, and murdered Karen and Anethe Christensen with an axe. Unfortunately for Wagner, Maren escaped and named him as the killer. Arrested in Boston, he was taken to Portsmouth, where he survived a lynch mob by the skin of his teeth, only to be hanged at Thomaston State Prison.

10 Freetown-Fall River State Forest (Massachusetts)


A scenic stretch of forest in southern Massachusetts, and the alleged site of much bizarre and chilling mythology. Some 5,000 acres across and a popular spot for hiking, biking and sundry other outdoor pursuits, it nevertheless sits inside another terrifying Triangle. This time it’s the ‘Bridgewater Triangle’, which like its namesakes in Bennington, Bermuda etc, is reputed to be a hotspot of paranormal phenomena, which include UFO incidents, bigfoot sightings, monster legends (giant snakes and birds, even a crazed emu), unexplained murders and weird disappearances. It is these latter cases that concern us most, as unlike much of the other strangeness, these horrors are provable. There were several gruesome killings in the forest during the 1970s and 1980s, claiming both male and female victims, with no successful convictions resulting. Rumours persist that a well-connected Satanic cult was responsible. If that sounds like a familiar and convenient explanation, other seemingly purposeless violence has continued to be perpetrated, with the police unable to bring anyone to justice. These assaults include random beatings, attacks by trained dogs and steel wires stretched at neck-height across cycling trails.     

11 Northfield Pigman (Vermont)


Possibly one of the eeriest mysteries of New England is that concerning the Northfield Pigman. It centres around two small towns in the Green Mountains region of Vermont, in particular along the Devil’s Washbowl Road. Both towns are the epitome of quaint, rural America: white picket fences, apple pie, rocking chairs on the porch. Exactly the kinds of places, in other words, where many classic horror novels and movies have been set. You can picture it: a bunch of Northfield teens enjoying their prom night, when some others, who’ve been sneaking booze outside, dash in, terrified, telling a nightmarish tale of how they were approached by something awful that came from the woods, a towering two-legged figure covered in thick white hair with a pig’s head and cloven hooves. This shocking event allegedly occurred in 1971, but the bizarre Pigman hybrid has reappeared repeatedly since, supposedly seen rooting through trash, running wild in the woods and tapping on the windows of parked cars where couples were making out. Several disappearances, people and animals, have been laid at the monster’s door, as has a sinister pile of gnawed bones found in the woods. But so far there is no actual proof. 

12 Kennebec Arsenal (Maine)


Reputedly one of the most haunted places in the US, the Kennebec Arsenal in Augusta, Maine, is at first glance a regal-looking white-stone building, an impressive landmark on the shore of the Kennebec River … until you get up close, and realise that it’s not just abandoned, but fenced off and covered with warning notices that danger lies within. Initially constructed after the War of Independence, it was at first an arsenal and munitions centre – which explains the Regency era style. But in 1901, it ceased operations and became part of the Maine State Hospital, specifically the part of the institution where the mentally ill were incarcerated. Whether the many rumours that, in its early days, the hospital’s inmates were neglected and mistreated are true (a couple of former patients insist that they are), a genuine scandal appears to surround the locations of the graves of the 11,647 unfortunates who died within its walls – because no-one knows where they are. One story holds that they were buried without ceremony in unmarked graves all over the hospital grounds. The many ghost stories are difficult to investigate as the site is now privately owned, and visitors are rarely permitted.

13 Warren Occult Museum (Connecticut)


Until very recently, the house occupied by Ed and Lorraine Warren in Monroe, Connecticut, could be visited for a few dollars, and the Warrens themselves would take you down into the cellar, where a plethora of artifacts collected from their many occult investigations could be viewed in perfect safety. It isn’t just the recent movies that have made the Warrens famous. Founders of the New England Society for Psychic Research, they were celebrated ghost-hunters and demon-busters from the 1950s onwards,  and participated, to some extent or other, in a variety of famous cases, from the Amityville Horror to Annabelle, the murderous doll. Claiming to have dealt with 10,000 cases of this sort, the Warrens authored many books and ran lucrative lecture tours. As such, the Museum was a popular attraction for many years. In recent times, sceptics, though stating that they believe the Warrens were well-meaning, have debunked many of their claims and accused them of leading deluded people into even deeper delusion, though Hollywood has done its bit to resurrect interest in the couple. Ed Warren died in 2006 and Lorraine in 2019, and their once famous house/museum is now permanently closed to the public.

14 Lake Bomoseen (Vermont)


West Castleton on the shore of Lake Bomoseen in Vermont is now a ghost town, but once was a hive of activity. In the 19th century, migrants flooded into it to work in the lumber mills and slate quarries. The boom lasted until the 1930s, at which point the demand for slate declined and the town emptied. The place itself is not especially sinister, having become one of several visitor centres in the Lake Bomoseen State Park. However, there is one eerie tale. In the 1850s, there was a tavern on the lake’s opposite shore, which the workers would row over to. The journey there wasn’t especially hazardous, though on the way back, with the men drunk, things were different. On one occasion, three Irishmen disappeared, their boat found empty and adrift the following morning. Extensive searches failed to locate them. Even when the waters were dragged, no trace was found. On dark nights, a spectral rowboat is still said to cross the water, though a greater mystery to many is what happened to the luckless trio, as the question remains unanswered. By the way, I have a suspicion that this photo does not depict Lake Bomoseen, unless its one of the great body of water’s many misty backwaters, but it looks scary, so I’ve used it.

15 Salem (Massachusetts)


The cold wind of witch-hunting madness that swept so many innocents to their deaths in Europe finally reached North America in 1692, specifically in Salem, Massachusetts. There’d been witch trials earlier in New England, though this was the big one. Still a British crown colony at the time, its population descended from Calvinist refugees, Massachusetts Bay, which included Salem, was a particularly fractious settlement where there was much political / religious infighting. Superstition was also rife, as was the deep-rooted Puritan belief that women were susceptible to the wiles of the Devil. All these things combined in a fevered atmosphere, and when a bunch of hysterical children began making accusations (maybe encouraged by their families), the whole disaster commenced. In due course, some 200 people were prosecuted, 19 of them, mostly female, hanged, one pressed to death and five left to perish in prison. The name ‘Salem’ is often evoked these days in hokey tales of witchcraft and other Halloween hi-jinks, but the background to the story is unrelentingly grim. The house pictured, the Witch House, belonged to Jonathon Corwin, one of the judges who sent so many blameless folk to the gallows.  

16 Haynesville Road (Maine)


“It’s a stretch of road up north in Maine that’s never, ever, ever seen a smile.” So opined ex-trucker turned country singer, Dick Curless, in his famous ballad A Tombstone Every Mile. He was referring to Route 2A, which runs through the Haynesville Woods in Northern Maine, and to the vast numbers of fatal road accidents that have occurred along it. There are many reasons why the road is so dangerous, though mainly it’s because in winter it is sheathed with ice and because it includes at least one 90-degree hairpin bend. Thanks to the relatively recent construction of Interstate 95, the route is little-used these days, at least by commercial vehicles, and perhaps this is the reason why so many ghost stories have grown up, the rumourists eager to tell tales worthy of the eerily empty highway and the deep, silent woods on either side. Despite this mundane explanation, the many tales concerning Haynesville Road are exceptionally creepy and there is a thread of consistency running through them, nighttime travellers often reporting similar spectral hitchhikers. Invariably, these are said to be the spirits of road accident fatalities still seeking to reach their destinations, and mostly they are either women or children.   

17 Little People’s Village (Connecticut)


Some spooky tales centre around a derelict model village in the woods near Middlebury, in central Connecticut. If you ever happen to be wandering this area, you may be surprised to encounter the village, as it isn’t signposted or a fixture on any recognised tourist trail – it simply sits there, a intricate clutter of doll-sized houses and shops, all now in a ramshackle state and overgrown by weeds and thorns. One of the stories holds that a man living alone in a nearby shack – of which the ruin still remains – was tormented by voices in his head, the ‘little people’ he believed, demanding that he build them a town. He did so, but the voices continued, finally driving him to suicide. Another tale holds that a man and his wife occupied the shack, and that it was the wife whom the faeries contacted, she then pestering her husband to build the village, the pair of them finally succumbing to insanity together. It’s tempting to think that maybe the shell of this story is true, and that some mentally ill hermit built the village, trying to appease imaginary beings, but most likely it came about as an outlying attraction for the Lake Quassy Amusement Park, a model railway connected to which once ran through these woods.  

18 Taunton State Hospital (Massachusetts)


Taunton State Hospital, or State Lunatic Hospital as it was called, closed in 1975. For a time, it stood as one of those archetypal abandoned ex-medical facilities that horror films are crammed with. It’s no surprise that such places possess auras. The incarceration of so many tortured souls could easily have left a psychic mark. But perhaps the atmosphere at Taunton is more potent than most because among its inmates there were some celebrity felons. Jane Toppan was a beautiful, charismatic nurse who was also a prolific poisoner. Some 31 patients suffered agonising deaths at her hands, and these were no mercy killings. Toppan admitted that she got a sexual thrill from her victims’ suffering. Confined at Taunton in 1902, she died there in 1938. Another (alleged) inmate was suspected axe murderess, Lizzie Borden. In 1892, Borden was accused of murdering her parents with a hatchet at their Fall River home but was later controversially acquitted. If none of that is scary enough, stories persist that staff members were themselves killers and even Satanists, and that they’d take particularly incorrigible inmates down to the cellars, to perform hideous experiments on them, before sacrificing them to Lucifer.

19 Lake Pocomoonshine (Maine)


Pocomoonshine is a particularly scenic lake near Princeton in the extreme west of Maine. A popular holiday destination, it also boasts a plethora of myths concerning the presence of a mysterious monster. There’s no doubt that lake monster stories generally seem a little cheesey, and on the face of it, this one is no real exception. The creature believed to inhabit Lake Pocomoonshine is known as ‘Poco’ and has now become a tourist attraction in his own right. However, the tale is an interesting one because there are some variations to the norm, and the rumours about him go back into Native American history. The location first became famous in the 1880s, when several loggers reporting seeing a 60-ft long water snake, very pale in colour and about four feet in thickness. If true, this would make Poco the biggest snake, not just on Earth, but in all of history. The current record is held by the Asian reticulated python, which has been known to grow to 30 ft in length, while in the Paleocene era, the Titanoboa grew to 48 feet. Poco’s existence is attested to in the legends of both the Algonquin and Mi’kmaq tribes, but aside from some curious trails on the lake shore – he is believed to leave the water – real evidence is scarce.

20 Provincetown (Massachusetts)


The mysterious case of the ‘Black Flash’, which occurred in Provincetown in 1939, is startlingly similar to that of ‘Spring-Heeled Jack’, who terrorised southern England 50 years earlier. Both stories concern the random appearances of a bizarre black-clad figure, very tall, with red eyes, who would jump out of the nighttime shadows to terrify unsuspecting citizens, and then escape by making prodigious leaps over high fences and even rooftops. On both occasions, hysterical laughter was reported, along with fiery breath; both felons supposedly proved immune to gunfire. These similarities have not been lost on US investigators, some of whom have tried to make solid links. For example, was this entity finally driven out of old England and did it cross the Atlantic to seek a new home? Whatever your view, Provincetown doesn’t seem the obvious place. A popular resort on the tip of Cape Cod, it boasts a big summer-time population, but is very quiet for much of the rest of the year. Unlikely theories vary from stranded aliens to elaborate schoolboy pranks to belated panic caused by Orson Welles’ War of the Worlds incident the previous year. The reports were real, however, and to date no answer has been supplied.


THRILLERS, CHILLERS, SHOCKERS AND KILLERS …

An ongoing series of reviews of dark fiction (crime, thriller, horror and sci-fi) – both old and new – that I have recently read and enjoyed. I’ll endeavour to keep the SPOILERS to a minimum; there will certainly be no given-away denouements or exposed twists-in-the-tail, but by the definition of the word ‘review’, I’m going to be talking about these books in more than just thumbnail detail, extolling the aspects that I particularly enjoyed … so I guess if you’d rather not know anything at all about these pieces of work in advance of reading them yourself, then these particular posts will not be your thing.


WHAT THE NIGHT KNOWS 
by Dean Koontz (2010)

John Calvino is a man struggling to reconcile with his past. As a teenager, he was sole survivor when crazed killer, Alton Turner Blackwood, broke into his home and horribly murdered his parents and sisters. In fact, John was the person who brought Blackwood’s reign of terror to an end, returning home just in time to gun the killer down with his father’s pistol.

In all other ways, though, the adult John Calvino now has a good life. It’s 20 years on, and he’s a well-regarded homicide detective (in an unspecified American town), with a beautiful wife, Nicolette, who’s also an excellent and successful artist, and three cute and intelligent kids, Zach, Naomi and Minette. He faces difficult cases daily, but his loving and characterful family are a strong support unit, and in any case, because of the tragedy he suffered in childhood, he sees it as his vocation to bring serious felons to justice.    

However, John’s ordered world starts to unravel when he is drawn to a case that he isn’t officially investigating but which bears worrying similarities to the deaths of his loved ones. Teenager Billy Lucas is in a secure mental ward after slaughtering his own family. He is believed to be schizophrenic, but when John visits him, the cop is alarmed by how much the disturbed youngster seemingly knows about the case two decades ago, and by his behaviour, which seems to veer from predatory and dark-hearted to innocent and frightened in the space of a second.

Afterwards, when John looks more carefully into the Lucas slayings, he finds that they are almost identical to the murders of his own family, even down to the small but significant details of the weird, blood-soaked rituals that Blackwood performed at the crime scene and at three identical crime scenes before it.

Other problems are manifesting too.

Not long after John returns from the asylum, his family begin sensing a presence in their formerly happy home. There are unexplained events: terrifying apparitions and incidents of apparent poltergeist activity, which primarily affect Nicolette and the children, though Nicolette writes her experiences off as a side-effect of the meds she is taking after recent surgery, while the youngsters find their own reasons for keeping quiet about it.

Meanwhile, John himself is badly shaken when he receives a phone-call from Billy Lucas – a guy who supposedly has no access to the outside world – the deranged youngster taunting him about his family’s deaths, even mentioning some of the vile things that Blackwood said to the young version of John Calvino twenty years earlier, which have never been made public.

When John complains to the hospital authorities, he is advised that not only is this impossible because Billy Lucas has no phone, it’s also impossible because the kid has just died from the stress of his condition.

Meanwhile, in a parallel strand to this main thread, and through several entries in a carefully-kept journal, we learn more about the man who would eventually become young John Calvino’s nemesis, the serial killer Alton Turner Blackwood, a deformed giant who came into this world through incest and was raised in the bosom of a patriarchal but amoral and dysfunctional family. It’s no surprise that he soon became a student of evil and a determined destroyer of innocence and beauty (though admittedly it’s a winding, colourful road he takes to get there, filled with all kinds of perverse domestic horror).

Of course, it has long been Calvino’s deepest fear that, somehow or other, this monster would find his way back into the world and return to finish the job he started by eradicating the Calvino seed once and for all. Perhaps inevitably, the cop isn’t far off the mark, though at this early stage he isn’t aware that Blackwood, who has not just been dead but in Hell, has indeed returned, having won brownie points with one particular prince of darkness, the demon, Ruin. But aside from creating a few minor special effects (that wretched poltergeist activity!), the only way Blackwood can really do harm is by possessing the living, and as the particularly sinful are most easily susceptible, we now meet a procession of twisted individuals whom the damned soul – his powers boosted by his infernal benefactor – is literally able to ride and steer as if they are horses.

Reece Salsetto, for example, a drug dealer and small-time gangster, who is driven to attempt to murder his sister’s family. Andy Tane, a corrupt and violent cop, who is galvanised to complete the job (his particular story including one of the scariest and downright most amazing death scenes I’ve witnessed in horror fiction, but no spoilers here). And Melody Lane, an insane child-killer, who is driven to make friends with Naomi, Calvino’s eldest daughter, by pretending to be an emissary from a fantasy fairy-tale world.

While this is happening, John, seeking spiritual guidance, hooks up with a disgraced and defrocked priest and one-time exorcist, Peter Abelard, who though he won’t come to the Calvino’s house because he can’t trust his own appetites for the very young, advises the detective about the terrible foe that he is facing.

Meanwhile, a whole clutch of killers, Melody Lane among them, are now closing in on the Calvino family, driven to behave even more murderously than normal because they are being ridden by the Ruin/Blackwood combo. Even with his new-found knowledge, it seems highly unlikely that John will be able to mount an effective defence …

From what I’ve seen thus far, What the Night Knows has been a very divisive book. Hardcore Dean Koontz fans have sung its praises from the rooftops, lauding its tension and terror, and in particular the nightmarish figure of Alton Turner Blackwood as one of the greatest villains in the author’s extensive canon. But others, less impressed, have criticised it for being repetitive of other earlier Koontz novels, unswervingly reinforcing the author’s Christian beliefs (divine intervention is a key element in this narrative), and hitting us with several plot devices that are simply too unbelievable.

In my own view it’s a rattling good read, very scary and disturbing in parts, a real page-turner. But yes, I did have issues with some aspects of the book so perhaps it’s better if we get those out of the way first.

There’s no argument that we’re in familiar Koontz territory with the Calvino family. This is all-America as it should be: the father a noble cop seemingly undamaged by his terrible childhood experience (he has deep fears, but he’s affable, even-tempered and dependable), the mother talented, beautiful and endlessly strong and patient, the children a real bunch of cutie-pies, intelligent, well-mannered and though precocious, not in an unpleasant way. The whole bunch of them live in a large house in a perfect leafy suburb, with servants at their beck and call (servants who they inevitably treat very well, in fact love almost as family in their own right).

I must be honest, I found all this a bit saccharine, plus I didn’t really buy into the kids’ intellects. Their conversations and thought processes seem too advanced for their ages. Zach, for example, is only 13, but wants to join the Marines so he can defend America against the world’s dictators, the thing he fears most (really?). Minnie is only eight, and yet displays complex emotional understanding of her siblings, and is able to rationalise their moods and relationships in a very adult way. And yet, conversely, we are expected to believe that Naomi, the middle child at 11, is so besotted with fairy tale romance that when a mysterious woman, Melody Lane, intrudes into her life, she is so willing to believe that she’s the ambassador from a magic kingdom that she never once mentions it to her parents.

I also found it difficult to accept the Calvinos’ well-heeled lifestyle. John is a homicide cop, Nicolette an artist who’s had success, but we don’t get the impression that she’s a raging success. They’re both only in their mid-thirties, and yet they live in this huge residence and have staff. It’s even the case that the children are home-schooled, which is expensive, and yet it’s never really explained where the family have accrued so much wealth. Reviewers who’ve been hostile to the book have complained that this is typical Koontz, claiming that he automatically equates good with the conservative world of America’s white upper-middle class.

But, you know, this is Dean Koontz’s novel. This is his story. Ultimately, he can do what he wants with it, and he doesn’t have a duty to promote some other person’s vision of how the world is or should be. And, I have to say, none of this really spoiled it for me. The Calvinos may be an improbably handsome, happy family unit, but they also come over as desperately vulnerable. Despite John’s knowledge and skill as a professional crime-fighter (possibly because we never see much evidence of him doing this), they live such a comfortable life that they are totally unprepared for the evil that’s approaching.

As for the complaint that this is an overly muscular Christian story, well, I guess that depends on your personal viewpoint. It certainly doesn’t bother me. I grew up in the western Christian tradition wherein good is represented by God and evil by the Devil. It’s not as if I’m unused to it, though it is hammered home rather strongly in its depiction of a young, modern-minded Catholic priest, who is hip and liberal in his outlook and therefore no use to the family, whereas the wizened, chain-smoking old-schooler, Peter Abelard, a hardline exorcist who believes that evil is a real thing, is a much greater ally (despite being a convicted child-molester!).

The Devil never actually appears in What the Night Knows, but his minions do: a lesser demon called Ruin, the damned soul of Alton Blackwood, and a whole procession of depraved and corrupted individuals, who, though they haven’t exactly sold their souls to Lucifer, have completely given in to his influence. It’s a tad simplistic, yes. But most horror fiction is. At the end of the day it’s entertainment, so I don’t know if it needs to be looked into more deeply than that.

Overall, What the Night Knows is an enjoyable read. Dean Koontz is already famous for his florid and descriptive style and has long been held the master of the metaphor. But to me at least, this book is a very smooth and accessible read, every event vividly portrayed, the pace rarely flagging, and all the way through hitting us with some spectacularly scary climaxes. I’ve already mentioned the hospital scene, but the scene in the asylum will live long in the memory too, as will Zach’s eerie sojourn into the darkened attic of his own home.

All of these moments, and many others like them, will keep you reading avidly. But Koontz is on top of his game when it comes to character-work as well.

What the Night Knows serves up a range of deliciously nasty villains, of which Melody Lane, a genuinely chilling presence in this novel, is only one. Peter Abelard has a foot in both camps. Okay, in his battle to control his own demons, he won’t even attend the Calvinos’ house because they have two young daughters, Even then, and even though he’s not ‘on camera’ very often, he makes for a mesmeric character: hard, embittered, torn up with self-hatred, living in a gaunt, half-derelict house, where he is consciously smoking himself to death. This is the first time I’ve encountered an author attempting to get into the mind of a sexually abusive cleric, though he is of course redeemed by his antipathy to the satanic netherworld, a potential cop-out that you probably wouldn’t get in a more literary account of this kind of vice. But again, its all very effective. I’d go as far as to say that John Calvino’s first meeting with Peter Abelard is one of the most compelling scenes in the entire book.

At the end of the day, What the Night Knows is a mixed bag. It has its drawbacks, but it’s still a gripping, stylishly written thriller. Koontz himself described it as a ghost story rather than a horror novel. I’m not really with him on that. We’re firmly at war with Satan in this one. It’s the world of possession, though not as we’re so used to seeing it. That said, purists might point to Gregory Hoblit’s 1998, movie, Fallen, in which an FBI agent follows a demon, who jumps from one host to the next, provoking them to kill, and maybe even William Peter Blatty’s1983 novel, Legion, wherein an executed serial killer wins kudos in Hell for his gruesome ways and is allowed to return to Earth to possess the innocent, thus continuing his reign of terror. But at least we’re out of that over-familiar world of bell, book and candle.

Yes, there is some schmaltz in What the Night Knows, but I see no reason why both horror and thriller fans alike won’t enjoy this fun and slightly different excursion into a criminal world revved to feverish proportions by occultic darkness.

And now, as always, probably very ill-advisedly, I’m going to attempt to cast What the Night Knows in the event that it may at some point be adapted for film or TV. As far as I’m aware, this hasn’t happened yet, so I’m good to go, even though this is just a bit of fun.

Detective John Calvino – Chris Pine
Nicolette Calvino – Minka Kelly 
Alton Turner Blackwood – Alexander Ludwig
Melody Lane – Lesley-Ann Brandt
Peter Abelard – Mickey Rourke

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