Horror novels have a narrow path on which to tread. What works and is popular on screen does not necessarily translate directly to the page. A number of would-be horror novelists have died on the machete of literal transcription. Watching teenagers be torn to ragged shreds by a vengeful killing machine is not the stuff of page turning terror. Ah, but if spacial care is taken to maintain tension from chapter to chapter and from page to page, the anxiety built over the course of a book can rival that of the best that truly frightening horror movies have to offer.
This is precisely what freshman novelist David Beers has managed to channel in his first literary offering, Dead Religion. A story told in line with Tarantino's idea of linear time, jumping suddenly around the quantum spectrum between three periods of time. These time periods revolve around a cataclysmic event, the contributing events leading up to it, and the happenings in the aftermath. The chapters themselves are short, averaging around three to seven pages each. This is just enough to further the mystery or terror that our mind is building, but short enough that the reader is always left yearning to find out more. It's a perfect tempo, metering out the exposition and fright with measured precision. As each chapter shifts narrator, we're given a much broader landscape to draw details from.
Our two primary protagonists are Alex Valdez, the only son of two Aztec descendants who delved too deeply into the lore of their forgotten god (Huitzilopochtli), and FBI Agent James Allison, who's sent to investigate the hotel explosion supposedly caused by Alex. It's the former's story, that of a mentally tortured man, who has already attempted suicide previously, along with his wife and their doctor, that resonates most strongly. Their struggles focuses so vividly that the reader's sympathy flows freely, despite knowledge of their ultimate fate. Where the narrative falters is in the relationship between James Allison and his younger brother Brandon. With their parents deceased, James is also his brother's guardian. The relationship between them feels artificially inflated, and in description drags quite a bit. It comes off as over wrought in execution. In practice, these scenes always seem the slowest, which causes minor pacing issues in an otherwise calculatedly slick novel. Though it should be noted that nearing the end of the story, James and Brandon's tales take on fascinating dynamics, becoming far more interesting when the brotherly subtext takes a back seat.
Dead Religion works because, at it's core, the horror being brought to bear on the characters is subtle, intense, and inescapable. When you wake a sleeping god, an ancient being, the results will be terrific. Terrible, yes, but terrific in their magnitude and scope. How does a god without worshipers interact with the world, and what could it want? What could happen if it prevails in it's desires? How have these poor characters been infected by this entity, and can you the reader too be impacted? Your certainty will be shaken as the pages pass, and dread becomes palpable.
Dead Religion is available in paperback ($7.99) and ebook ($3.99) from Amazon. It's a short, but scary read (clocking in at 210 pages). Personally, it has me very interested in what Mr. Beers has in store for us next.
Chuck Francisco is a columnist and critic for Mania, writing Saturday's Shock-O-Rama, the weekly look into classic cult, horror and sci-fi. He is a co-curator of several repertoire film series at the world famousColonial Theatre in Phoenixville, PA. You can hear him drop nerd knowledge on weekly podcast You've Got Geek or think him a fool of a Took on Twitter.