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Spotlight on: Douglas Clegg
Douglas Clegg, Nightmare House (Harrow House Series, Book 1)
(unabridged audiobook read by Michael Taylor)
The year is 1926, and Ethan Gravesend has just inherited Harrow House -- the Watch Point, New York, home of his grandfather Justin Gravesend (who tells the story of his own early years in The Necromancer). Called Nightmare House by the local newspapers because of the events that have taken place under its roof, it is also said that every stone, every piece of glass, of this English-style manor castle was chosen specifically by Justin with full knowledge of its history and possible black-magical effects.
"Harrow, you belong to me," Ethan proclaims upon his arrival. "But I was to learn," the elder Ethan notes in the telling of this story from the present day, "that this house belonged to no man." However, Ethan feels as if he has come home at last. He used to visit Harrow in his youth, but his parents kept him away except for those rare visits, though he would dream of it at night.
Newly single, Ethan is prepared to settle in to his newly acquired wealth and status -- until the dead woman is discovered in the secret walled-off room. Accompanied by chief of police Pocket and local boy Alf, other frightening events are to come (during what the elder Ethan calls a "night of mystery") that will cause him to wonder what exactly his grandfather has let loose in Harrow. But these events will pale in comparison to the new information he discovers about his family.
Author Douglas Clegg has said that Nightmare House is his version of the "quiet ghost story" -- in fact, each Harrow novel reflects a favored literary style of his. Clegg leaps around from first-person to third-person, past to present, with confidence, and he never misses a step. Reader Michael Taylor (from Books in Motion, the audio publisher who produced this edition) follows along gamely. Taylor's friendly baritone eases the listener into the strange happenings like a kindly uncle telling a spooky story before the fire. He also shows a surprising facility with voices that I would have thought out of his range. I especially enjoyed Taylor's characterization of Pocket; Clegg gives Pocket a lot of space to maneuver as a supporting character, even allowing him to tell his own side of the story, and Taylor gives him a dose of extra personality.
My first Harrow novel was through 2005's The Abandoned, which I did not enjoy for various reasons, but one of those may have been my lack of knowledge regarding the house and its background. (Clegg says you can read the series in any order, but that one may be the exception.) Nightmare House filled me in wonderfully, and I may have to give the other another try. This first novel of Harrow House and its surrounding history and happenings was wholly satisfying, and it has made me look forward to reading the other entries in the series. In fact, as soon as I finished listening to it, I picked up The Necromancer and read it in two sittings. These have reaffirmed my confidence both in Clegg and in Harrow, and now I am eager to acquire a copies of the other Harrow stories. And if they are also released on audio of this quality, that will be even better.
Douglas Clegg, The Priest of Blood (The Vampyricon)
If anyone was going to get me to read a sword-and-sorcery tale about a vampire -- two subgenres that I feel have just about been beaten to death -- it would be Douglas Clegg. Ever since reading his short story collection, The Nightmare Chronicles (must-reading for any horror fan, especially any horror writer), each successive book of his has solidified his place on my list of favorite writers, even through a couple of mild disappointments (more detailed opinions can be found further down this page).
Like most people, I am much more willing to be experimental with an author who has already proven himself to me, than one with whom I am mostly unfamiliar. I have previously been vocal about my dislike of medieval fantasy, so I was ready for reading The Priest of Blood to be a real test of my will, but I determined to give it the old college try. (Clegg's juggernaut marketing campaign -- involving contest prizes like cups and pens, including one shaped like a syringe filled with "blood" -- had certainly succeeded in guaranteeing that his book was at the front of my mind for several months.)
I need not have worried. Clegg's skill at entertaining with words is such that, before I reached the bottom of page four, I was fully swept up in his tale ("kept secret for more than eight hundred years"), and his terrific use of foreshadowing kept me turning the pages. By the time I got to the puzzle, my favorite part, I was turning pages at top speed.
The Priest of Blood is the story of young Aleric Atheffeld, a falconer of humble birth (Aleric's mother sells her body for food and money to support her children, none of whom share the same father) who -- through a combination of skill, innate talent, and luck (if you can call it that) -- perseveres through a series of trials involving family, love, and revenge to become the chosen one ("Maz-Sherah") of an age-old tribe of nosferatu.
Born a bastard, destined to serve not be served, Aleric is sent from the woman he loves (after a hot love scene beneath statue of Virgin Mary) to fight in the Crusades only to end up imprisoned in an ancient tower, where he has his blood drained ecstatically by the beautiful blonde Pythia. Three nights later, he awakens full of moral questions, sharper vision, and a barely satiable bloodthirst. And that is only the first half of the book.
The Priest of Blood was simply a joy to read. Though full-time childcare responsibilities kept me from ripping through it in a day, I made time for it whenever possible during every spare moment. Clegg takes the "blood-drinker" legend and adds his own surprising twists (like a limited life span) in essence creating a new mythology -- and this is only the beginning! There are at least two more books in the series planned, and I've already made space on my bookshelf next to this one for its successors (The Lady of Serpents is due in September, 2006). (In the meantime, Clegg is also working on an Arthurian trilogy of novels centering around Mordred, another legendary illegitimate, beginning with Mordred, Bastard Son.) Clegg's new foray into dark fantasy is better than I ever expected. Although I've read a good selection of his works prior to this one, I've never come across such lyrical description from him. It's as if The Priest of Blood has allowed his inner poet to shine through unabated.
Douglas Clegg, The Attraction (also includes The Necromancer)
Author Douglas Clegg likes to challenge himself with each new piece of fiction. He tries his hand at B-grade movie horror with the title novella in The Attraction, and succeeds marvelously. But, as always, he adds a little touch of his own.
A group of college friends who have decided to travel across the country during their break come upon the Brakedown Palace along their way. It is a lot like any other out-of-the-way service station, except for what lurks in the back room. It is The Attraction: the mummified skeleton of a figure the owners nicknamed Scratch. According to the signage, "once Scratch gets fresh human skin under his fingernails and the taste of blood, he'll come back ... to reap the human harvest."
Well, of course, two of the guys get into a scuffle, break the glass, and one of them accidentally bleeds on the newly uncovered Scratch. It's a simple and familiar plot, and Clegg runs with it. If you've seen the kinds of movies The Attraction is inspired by, there are few surprises, but Clegg manages to keep the tension high and puts the proper scares in their places. You'll be getting chills even while you're chuckling at the pure silliness of it all.
But, of course, there's more: Clegg isn't satisfied to just crank out a derivative tale and be done with it. He also examines other attractions, the attractions these friends have for one another. And he gives his eventual hero a chance to prove himself to himself -- to take this opportunity to "become a man" while defeating the ancient creature. This takes The Attraction to another level that another author may not have attempted. The extra effort Clegg puts into his work is one aspect that has made him one of my favorite authors.
Also included in with The Attraction is another Clegg novella. "The Necromancer" is a terrific prequel to Clegg's Harrow House series. In it, Justin Gravesend (who built the house and is the source of its bad energy) tells in his own words the story of his early years. First being born in Cwthshire, Wales, to a strict father, then to the horrific discovery that changed his attitude toward his parents, and finally to the meeting of the title character who introduced him to the power of black magic.
Justin Gravesend's story is one of perversity and debauchery and his embracing of it. Clegg does not back away from the more unsavory elements, yet keeps the language of the time (presumably the late 1800s), so that sometimes it felt as if I were reading something a work from Boccaccio or the like. "The Necromancer" is never anything less than compelling, and I finished this relatively short tale in two sittings.
Some readers may be disappointed by its brief nature and abrupt ending (though this is addressed in the text); it is really only the beginning of a story that has only been hinted at in the other novels. Hopefully, Clegg will address this more fully at a later time, but until then, this taste of the history of the man behind Harrow is satisfying enough -- and the price is right.
This review was originally published in somewhat different form in Down in the Cellar. Copyright 2006. Reprinted with permission.
Douglas Clegg, The Abandoned
This latest entry in Douglas Clegg's Harrow House series is the only novel of his, so far, that has disappointed me. When The Abandoned was first released, there was talk, especially by Clegg himself, of how he was entering extreme horror territory. A couple of my favorite authors are Edward Lee and Jack Ketchum, so I was psyched to learn that Clegg, a more sensitive writer, was going to be adding his touch to the genre.
I'm not sure what happened, but somehow The Abandoned became something that wasn't quite extreme horror, and wasn't quite Douglas Clegg. (One example of how the book is both but neither is how when Clegg is describing gruesome events, he still uses euphemisms, taking away from the experience.) Not a happy medium, it neither scares nor moves, and was in fact a struggle to finish. I simply didn't care what was happening to the characters.
The past and present of Harrow House has been visited in several previous Clegg books, including The Infinite, Mischief, The Necromancer, and Nightmare House. They are meant to be read in any order, and I will definitely pick up another one becaus the idea behind Harrow House is fascinating: first it was a residence, then it was a boarding school, and now it lies fallow, waiting for someone to release its power.
Unfortunately, this portrait of its mysterious takeover of the locals in a small town was simply underwhelming. Not only is there no explanation given for the strange actions of the residents (the house just makes people act that way?), but the characters seem to only exist in order to fulfill its odd expectations. I cannot remember very much about any of the characters that people the pages of The Abandoned (apart from one's name, Kazi Vrabec). Only their actions remain in my memory, and I'm not sure I'm attributing them correctly.
I do admire Clegg for taking on different styles, however; it is one of the reasons that he is so high on my list of authors. Even his Vampyricon series, beginning with The Priest of Blood, shows that he is unafraid to write what he wants, instead of writing for an audience. The Abandoned may be a misstep, but I feel sure that it will be a rare one.
Douglas Clegg, Afterlife
The first book of Douglas Clegg's that I read was his Bram Stoker Award–winning short story collection The Nightmare Chronicles, which I found to be stunning in its breadth and depth of subject matter and one of the best collections I'd ever read. Hoping that Clegg's novels would simply be longer, more sustained examples of that talent, I looked forward to reading more of his work.
Luckily, he was offering a serial of one of his older novels, Dark of the Eye, in his newsletter, and I read that one with eagerness. But, when it came to actually spending more money, I was stuck. I couldn't decide what the next one was going to be. He writes in many different genres (and he's admirably prolific), so there were many to choose from. Should I read a Harrow novel or a standalong; an older one or a more recent offering; one under his own name, or an Andrew Harper?
Clegg's recent novel Afterlife basically chose itself. Perusing one of the many bookstores I frequent, it all but jumped out at me from the shelf, with the contrasting black and white colors difficult to avoid. The cover is stunning, as well, with that door to what can only be a padded room, and the floating skull in the foreground, it offers a sense of things to come without giving too much away.
Which is what I'm going to attempt, because Afterlife is difficult to summarize. There's a fairly straightforward storyline, but its many character revelations make the decision regarding what to mention and what to hold back difficult. Focusing on the one storyline really makes things move. It's a fast-paced, pocket-sized read.
In the 1970s, a school called the Daylight Project, for children with special abilities, burned down. Now, someone is killing the survivors. One of the recent victims is Janet Hutchinson's husband, Jeff, known as "Hut" and she is left in care of his son Matt and their daughter Livy. Meanwhile, questions about the Hut she thought she knew keep cropping up and she begins to investigate the significance of (and connections among) a red-headed woman who appears on a videotape; a key to the mysterious room 66S; Hut's first wife Amanda, who has voluntarily locked herself in a mental hospital; and renowned author and pop psychic Michael Diamond.
Julie goes through a wrenching nightmare-filled grief process that Clegg chronicles with his usual heightened sensitivity. (No suffering just for the sake of it here; you're going to be right in Julie's head all the way.) Clegg skill at dramatizing Julie's different emotions, as she goes through the Five Stages, stands right up there with Bridge to Terabithia in its realism and lack of exploitation.
Afterlife definitely has a different feel to it than Clegg's more "horrific" work. There is plenty of tension, but not the ultra-disturbing subject matter that he often covers, making it ideal for those curious folk in the mainstream. (Certainly, it's the one book of his that I've seen in every bookstore I've been in lately.) And existing Clegg fans will still find his distinctive voice. It's only flaw is an ambiguous ending that, perhaps inadvertently, leaves the door wide open for a sequel. But, then again, is yet another Clegg novel ever cause for lament?
Douglas Clegg, The Nightmare Chronicles
Considering the fact that I primarily bought this in order to get Amazon.com's free shipping offer on my 2005 Writer's Market, I am extremely impressed. Douglas Clegg begins his first short story collection with a clever idea and it just keeps getting better from there on. The Nightmare Chronicles is one of the most accomplished collections I've read in years. As a practitioner of psychological horror firmly rooted in a remarkable sense of place, he has no peer.
I was instantly swept away by the wraparound story of a kidnapped child who inflicts nightmares on his captors (that they have no idea what they've gotten themselves into is made painfully clear), and it segues smoothly into the inaugural tale (or "nightmare"), "Underworld." Not only is it a horrific tale of love lost, but Clegg's portrayal of conflicting emotions in his protagonist is also an extra layer that taps into the potential reality of the situation -- you know, what gets the reader personally involved in the story.
Short stories don't always give me what I want out of an author, but they are an excellent way to experiment. Usually I just skip around, reading at random -- and sometimes I don't even finish the book -- but The Nightmare Chronicles is simply amazing. Episodic in its structure, each story, at first, leads into the wraparound, pulling the reader gently into the next. It really is a bit like a rollercoaster: the first few stories need the wraparound for connective tissue, but once the first peak is reached, each story just comes at you faster and faster until, before you know it, you've reached the suitably twisted ending and the only thing you want to do is get right back in line for another round.
Clegg probes the horrors of everyday life: love, growth, death, sex, family, freedom, religion, obsession, obligation, the unfamiliar, and the inevitable all get the going-over in The Nightmare Chronicles, sometimes in the same story. And even though horror often requires a suspension of disbelief just to get past the first page, you'll find none of the usually preposterous situations that often occur in other authors' works (like Dean Koontz's, who submits a cover blurb that is as overwrought as his own novels). In short, there is none of the usual stupidity that we all hate at all in here. In fact, Clegg comes across as someone who is particularly intelligent and expects nothing less from his readers. I haven't read a short story collection that got me so excited about a new (to me) author since F. Paul Wilson's Soft and Others and I'm nothing but excited about the prospect of reading Clegg's novels.
Bentley Little, Douglas Clegg, Christopher Golden, 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).
Douglas Clegg, Dark of the Eye
After reading author Douglas Clegg's Bram Stoker Award–winning short story collection The Nightmare Chronicles, I was eager to read a novel by him. But where to start? As luck sometimes has it, that decision was made for me.
In the interest of keeping up with news about Clegg, I signed up for his email newsletter and found that Dark of the Eye was being serialized within its pages. Not the most ideal circumstances in which to read a novel, I'll admit -- I'm one of the old-fashioned type that still likes to turn pages -- but it is also an idea whose time has come. It's merely an updating of the old Dickensian model of magazine serialization -- and he was, by most accounts, a rousing success. Even now, authors are catching on to the concept that the best way to promote their work is by giving something away for free. It keeps us coming back and, therefore, keeps their names fresh in our minds for when we go book shopping.
Dark of the Eye, first published in 1994, is now out of print but still available from online booksellers. Still, it's fairly rare, which makes it the perfect candidate for this sort of promotion; it is a really good book that isn't easily available anywhere else. It almost makes it seem like a sort of discovery!
In it, we're dropped right in the middle of an ongoing story as a one-eyed girl named Hope Stewart gains an awesome healing power that some people -- like her father, the mysterious Dr. Robert Stewart -- want to preserve, while others -- like Special Projects' Stephen Grace (aka "Shadow"), a government assassin -- want to destroy. Hope's mother, Kate, however, doesn't trust Robert and runs away with Hope, straight into the middle of Empire, California, a former boomtown that now seems only to serve as the residence for a motley crew of supporting characters -- including the strange "family" that goes by the name of Cthonos.
A relatively early novel in the Clegg bibliography, Dark of the Eye does not exhibit signs of the author's later confidence in his abilities, but does showcase his seemingly intuitive knowledge of when something works. The beginning is a little confusing because while we're trying to learn about the characters, they're taking off somewhere else. It's like a chase trying to get to know them. After the fast-paced exposition, the story takes time getting to where it's going though the pace never lets up. Once the climax is set in motion, however, the surprises come fast and furious as the novel barrels to its conclusion. (I carried the printed pages with me so as not to miss a opportunity to read it.) It ends somewhat abruptly, but is suspenseful and engrossing the entire time. The characters are absolutely fascinating and Clegg fills this book with enough idiosyncracies to fill a series of novels and a circus freak show.
(Email me and let me know what you think.)