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Spotlight on: Christopher Golden
Christopher Golden, Straight on 'Til Morning
[Wendy] asked where he lived.
On the cusp of his fourteenth birthday, Kevin Murphy is looking forward to his last summer before high school: three months spent drinking beer, swimming under the railroad trestle, and pining over the love of his life, Nikki French -- a fifteen-year-old so out of his leatue, Kevin isn't even willing to profess his true feelings until after his birthday. At least then he will only be one year younger than this girl who usually dates older guys.
But there is trouble in town in this summer of 1981: a nineteen-year-old named Pete Starling who, with his hoodlum friends, is about to make Kevin's life practically unbearable. By the end of the summer, Kevin will have to learn a lot about what it means to be a man, what it means to be a friend, and what it means to be truly in love.
Christopher Golden is perhaps best known for his skill at taking an existing mythology and going somewhere new with it (see The Myth Hunters, Bloodstained Oz [written with James A. Moore], the Prowlers series, the Hollow series [written with Ford Lytle Gilmore], his Buffy the Vampire Slayer novels, etc.) and here he puts his own spin on Peter Pan (though it is not obvious at first). In many ways, the story of Kevin Murphy is the story of the teenage Christopher Golden. In his introduction to Straight on 'Til Morning (new to this edition), he states this in so many words. But it would be fairly obvious even without known that Nikki French's real-life counterpart was named Bobbi English. The characters and events in the first third of the book feel too real to be fully fictional. The emotions are simply too genuine to be imaginary. This portion of the novel is terrific material that deserves to added to the long line of classic coming-of-age novels.
As far as I am concerned, that would have been enough of a story for one novel. But Golden is apparently a more ambitious writer than I am a reader, because he took his characters off to a strange, dark version of Neverland with only some vaguely magical directions to guide them. I was a little worried that this would throw off the tone of Straight on 'Til Morning, and for the most part I was right, but Golden grounds even this foray into the unreal with the solidity of his characters.
Unfortunately, this second half does not work as well as the first. The story drags throughout, when it should be highly suspenseful due to the abduction of a major character, because Golden has to stop the action to describe the new surroundings in detail. This makes his Neverland very easy to imagine, but there were many times I wanted him to just get on with the story! But even then, just like seemingly every other fantasy tale, it has to end in a sword fight, which was a huge disappointment given how well things had started off (though I do have to give him a couple of points for scoring another climactic scene with Led Zeppelin's "Kashmir"). As interested as I was in Straight on 'Til Morning (partially because it shares its title with my favorite Blues Traveler album), it was perhaps for it to meet the high expectations I had placed upon it from reading some of Golden's other works.
(Also included in this new edition [which otherwise matches the Signet mass-market edition page for page; both imprints are part of the Penguin Group] is a bonus short story, "Runaway," that illuminates a pivotal event in the Murphys' lives that is only mentioned in passing in the novel. It is a wonderful accompaniment to Straight on 'Til Morning -- though it also relies a little too much on fantastic elements for my taste -- and the perfect way to close the door on the Murphys' story.)
This review originally appeared in somewhat different form on The Green Man Review. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.
Christopher Golden, Prowlers
Christopher Golden, Prowlers: Laws of Nature
Author Christopher Golden puts his own twist on the werewolf story (and then cleverly proposes his "reality" as the genesis of the mythos) in Prowlers, the first entry in a series. Jack Dwyer, 19 (and not Ed Gorman's P.I. of the same name), and his sister Courtney, five years his senior, have lost both of their parents -- their father left and their mother died -- leaving them in charge of the family business, a Boston pub called Bridget's Irish Rose.
After a double date with Jack, a new girl named Kate, and Jack's best friends Molly and Artie, Kate and Artie are savagely murdered on the way home. As if it weren't bad enough that Jack and Molly have lost their best friends, now Jack is also being visited by Artie's ghost.
Artie refuses to "go on" until Jack does something about the creatures who killed him -- the Prowlers. The Prowlers are creatures that are fully animal, but can appear human. Though the police seem to know of their existence, the Prowlers have never made the newspapers because, after every murder committed by them, the Boston police swoop in to clean everything up quickly, making sure that no one tells what they say ... because who would believe them anyway? So now it's up to Jack and Molly to rid Boston of the Prowlers, especially pack leader, Owen Tanzer -- scion of a Prowler dynasty -- and his bloodthirsty (and rather cocky) followers.
After fifty slow pages of exposition, I almost gave up on Prowlers, but it picks up speed soon after. Golden keeps the plot moving briskly but doesn't neglect his characters' inner thoughts or relationships. His ability to get into the minds of young adults in remarkable -- all of his characters are realistic. Though they are caught up in an unreal situation, these characters behave and respond like real people -- albeit ones a bit more heroic than average. This is the first full-length novel I've read of Golden's (I'd previously read the novella included in Four Dark Nights, and it's made me eager to find others. Luckily, to begin with, there are three more novels in this series.
Continuing a series where the protagonists essentially do the same thing in each entry, and not repeat yourself ad nauseam is a difficult task, but one I am glad to say Golden has pulled off in the second entry of his series, Prowlers: Laws of Nature. It continues the Jack and Molly's search for Prowlers, only this time in Buckton, Vermont. (I guess they've taken it upon themselves to be the go-to couple for Prowler extermination.)
When locals are killed mysteriously, word gets back to Jack and Molly, now working together at Bridget's Irish Rose Pub in Boston, that the circumstances are very much like what they dealt with previously. Artie delivers a message from the Ghostlands that things are exactly as they seem, and the two are off to Vermont, where they immediately get into trouble with the local Sheriff for knowing too much about what's going on in town. They are eventually considered the prime suspects when they are aware of a third murder before the police are, making their stay in Buckton even more uncomfortable than they expected.
Prowlers: Laws of Nature is definitely a series novel. It continues the story from Prowlers, but fills in details for readers who may have stepped into the middle of things unaware. Golden has a knack for this kind of fast-paced, don't-think-about-it-too-much writing, but I wish Pocket Books had taken a little more time with the editing process instead of just cranking the books out every three months -- there are far too many typographical errors to be blamed on the author. For example, some misguided copyeditor decided on consistency over accuracy, changing every mention of Bridget's Irish Rose Pub to "Irisk" in order to match the first instance. This is simply unacceptable from such a large publishing house. Luckily, the book is entertaining enough to allow readers to either not notice or just move on in order to get to the end of the story. I look forward to soon being able to read the third, Predator and Prey.
Bentley Little, Douglas Clegg, Christopher Golden, and Tom Piccirilli, Four Dark Nights (Novellas)
I guess we have to thank (or blame, as your preference lies) Stephen King for the popularization of the horror novella, legitimizing it as a publishable format with the appearance of his 1982 collection, Different Seasons (and following later with Four Past Midnight). Novellas have yet to achieve mainstream success, per se, but at least people no longer offer up vacant expressions at the mention of the word.
Among the smaller presses, however, the novella has really taken off. Yes, they're still often used simply as the springboard to a longer, more commercially viable work, but in some houses, novellas are just as likely to be published as novels or short story collections or anthologies.
But this lead-in has little or nothing to do with Four Dark Nights, an anthology containing four novellas from authors better known for releasing full-length novels: Bentley Little, Douglas Clegg, Christopher Golden, and Tom Piccirilli -- all popular in their own horror subgenres.
How they come across in their execution of this medium-sized format depends as much on your expectations as their skill. Little's entry, "The Circle," comes first and immediately decides to not play fair -- it is really just three separate short stories tacked together, only two of which are related. Not an auspicious beginning, but then I've often found Little short fiction lacking (see Last Pentacle of the Sun). His combined tales of a feral boy who defecates precious gems, and the strange backyard goings-on of a small town just like your own simply did not hold my interest, though Little's unassuming writing style certainly made it an otherwise easy read.
Luckily, Christopher Golden's "Pyre" is a vast improvement, or I may have just stopped there and not finished Four Dark Nights at all (as you'll discover later, that would have been a pity). A girl, stoically attending the funeral of her mostly absent father, flashes to another time when she and a group of her friends came across an island reportedly formed from the burned remains of dead bodies. This memory launches an idea that will hit her with an uncomfortable truth and change her life forever, if she can only survive the night ahead.
The main problem with "Pyre" is the pacing. Once the central action is presented, Golden and his characters take entirely too long to get where they're headed. I found myself skipping entire paragraphs of description during what were essentially travel scenes (Robert Silverberg shows how to manage this properly in The Book of Skulls). Otherwise, Golden paints a fully developed, especially in the beginning scenes, but mildly implausible portrait of a teenager dealing with confusion and lost opportunity. His history of writing for younger readers is apparent in the obvious respect he has for his characters and their needs.
"Jonah Arose" will please fans of Tom Piccirilli's Southern gothic novels A Choir of Ill Children and November Mourns, and it was the first written of that trilogy of sorts. Piccirilli enjoys focusing on odd characters -- freaks, if you will -- and here he goes right to the source with a look at a real freak show, carnival-style, as a former child preacher and carnival geek goes in search of his kidnapped son. Surrealism is the method here, and Piccirilli plays fast and loose with "reality." We are constantly finding out that things are not what we thought they were and the author never flinches from the most disgusting of images. I often find Piccirilli a difficult read, but always a rewarding one. I just hope I never end up in his world.
Ending the anthology with a bang, Douglas Clegg's "The Words" is a real stunner. In the space of just 85 pages, Clegg creates a mythology, ages it, and sets its destiny in motion via two teenage boys, Dash and Mark, and their perhaps poorly chosen selections of reading materials. Once Dash sets the awful events in motion, only Mark can stop them, but he can't for the life of him remember the words Dash begged him not to forget. Oh, he can remember the names that started it all, but those foreign-sounding words continue to escape him. Clegg creates real tension, even during the flashback scenes used to explain the history and lead up to the present. Using the novella form to its utmost, "The Words" could be told no other way.
Of the four novellas in Four Dark Nights, Little's is the only true dud, but his fans may enjoy his particular style of storytelling anyway. Golden's is surprising (my first work from this author), Piccirilli's is disturbing, and Clegg's is thrilling, the only true page-turner. Horror fans of all stripes will enjoy at least one of the stories told in this anthology, and fans of novellas should especially seek it out, given how rare it is for that form to make it into mass-market paperback. Leisure is just about the only one doing it, often tacking one on to a shorter novel as a bonus to fill out the page count and give the reader more for his money (see Jack Ketchum's Red -- Clegg fans can find novellas in both Nightmare House and The Attraction).
(Email me and let me know what you think.)