Saturday, November 17, 2007

Books: The road less traveled.

John Maberry is a curious cat.

He's an inductee into the Martial Arts Hall of Fame – an institution I'd wager most folks didn't even imagine existed. In 2003 Maberry joined such luminaries as Toshiro Mifune, Sonny Chiba, Bruce Lee, Steven Segal, and Jackie Chan in the Hall on the strength of his numerous martial arts guides, a program he runs teaching cops self-defense techniques, and – no fooling – his creation of a self-defense program for handicapped folks, including a program for the blind and one for people in wheelchairs. Seriously. It's called "Steel Wheels."

If that wasn't enough, Maberry is also the founder of an online literary magazine called The Wild River Review and he helps run a writing center called Career Doctor for Writers. He's qualified to give advice, seeing as he's got 900 article, two plays, several songs, and sixteen non-fiction books under his belt.

All this feeds into his paying gig as a motivational speaker.

But wait, there's more. He's written extensively about supernatural folklore and, in 2006, he wrote his first horror novel and it won the Stoker Award for Best First Novel. It was also nominated for Best Novel, but not even Maberry can win all the time.

Basically, Maberry is a freakin' overachiever and he'd be easy to hate. Only problem is, Ghost Road Blues, the aforementioned award winning novel, is an excellent book that deserved the praise heaped upon it.

Almost makes it worse, don't it?

Ghost Road Blues is the opening book of a trilogy of grand-scale horror novels set in the fictional Pennsylvania town of Pine Deep. Pine Deep is a mostly rural hamlet with a thriving historic downtown area full of artsy shops aimed at snagging tourist dollars. Many moons ago, a sinister serial killer stalked Pine Deep. A mob of angry townsfolk lynched the killer and, as time has gone on, Pine Deep has embraced the grand lessons of capitalism and turned their bloody past into thriving Halloween-centric tourism industry. The town markets itself as "The Spookiest Town in America."

Only problem is that horror fiction relishes irony and a civic development plan based on something so clearly sinister is bound to bite you in the ass.

Pine Deep's homegrown serial killer isn't dead. The man the angry citizens lynched was the wrong man: a local blues musician who, in fact, had just struggled with the real murderer and had left him for dead. Now both the serial killer – an evil creature that seems to simply wear the guise of a human – and the ghost of the wrongly executed man are going to duke it out again. And right during tourist season, when the potential chaos and body count will be at their highest levels. Into this mix, add a trio of drugged up and homicidal bank robbers who crash in Pine Deep in an effort to escape a drug deal gone amuck. Season with a mayor who sees visions of dead relatives. Stir in a fundamentalist Christian garage worker who has decided that he's the Sword of God – which means blood will be spilled. Arrange against this plague of evils a police force straight out of The Andy Griffith Show. Finally, garnish with too-smart crows, ghost deer, and a sinister living scarecrow animated by the legions of insects that dwell within him. Good times.

GRB is a classic, post-King American horror epic. That means you get otherworldly forces, a semi-rural setting, and multiple interwoven plotlines that blend supernatural scares with the banal evil of dysfunctional families and small town injustices. A thumbnail sketch makes it sound like a same-old, same-old exercise in horror lit, but that doesn't take into account Maberry's writing. Maberry keeps everything snapping along. The descriptions are well-observed, the characters do exactly what's needed of them, and the plot hums. The horror and gore are expertly controlled: you get just enough to scare without tipping over into bloody absurdity. My wife, curious about what was in these horror paperbacks I bring home, read the first few chapters involving a scare that, as the plot moves along, turns out to be a false alarm. She later said to me, "If that's the fake scare, I don't want to know about the real one."

If I've got any caveat to give, it's that Ghost Road Blues is not really a stand-alone book. It has a narrative arc all its own, but it is clearly ends on the assumption that you'll stick around for the next two installments. The second novel, Dead Man's Song, is already out and the third book, Bad Moon Rising, is due out mid-2008. If you don't want to be in for a pound, then don't start. Personally, I think the pound's worth it.


Anonymous said...

How do we know that John Maberry didn't threaten to kick the rear of anyone who didn't vote his story to be an A-liner, above the fold, top-notch book ?

Anonymous said...

The idea for the book sounds great, but I almost want to read it simply because Maberry sounds like a fascinating character.