Thursday, June 05, 2008

Books: Semi-rural suburban vampire terror-cells and the hobby-shop ninjas who fight them.

Jonathan Maberry's Dead Man's Song is the sequel to his Stoker-Award winning Ghost Road Blues and it picks up immediately where the previous book left off. And I do mean immediately – the first action starts just a few hours after the last conflict in the first book.

To review: Mayberry's horror epic focuses on the residents – human and not-so-much – of the town of Pine Deep, a semi-rural community that has managed to turn its dark past as "America's most haunted town" into a thriving Halloween-centric tourist biz. In the first tome, a perfect storm of villainy – the resurrection of a long-dead serial killer and the arrival of three mundane, but no less brutal big city bank-robbers – turned Pine Deep's preparations for it annual Halloween hootenanny into an unhinged bloodbath.

When Dead Man's Song opens, the community is just starting to recover. Several of the initial book's key characters are hospitalized, missing, or dead. Those still on their feet slowly begin to piece together the conspiracy of human and supernatural elements that begin to threaten their small town. Before the book is over, Pine Deep will face another violent round of conflicts, all building up to a hinted at apocalyptic siege planned for Halloween (the subject of the third and final book in the series).

Compared to Ghost Road Blues, DMS is a more tightly plotted, less frantic book. Part of the charm of GRB was it almost-crazed pacing and kitchen-sink approach to action/horror. It was, in some ways, more energetic than sensible; but the ride was so much fun and Maberry seemed confident that he was, in fact, going somewhere with all his tangled and hanging threads. If Maberry's follow-up had possessed the same near-reckless propulsion, the result would be fatigue. Instead, Maberry takes the time to start connecting the dots, defining the world his characters live in, and outlining the threat that one imagines will turn the third book in the trilogy, Bad Moon Rising, into another explosion of inventive horror/action. Prior to the third book's release I asked Maberry if he planned to use Pine Deep as reoccurring setting and he said, "Well, there isn't much of Pine Deep left after the last book." I think it is safe to assume that the last tome will return to the frantic, barely-controlled giddiness of the first.

As in the first book, Maberry's characters are ably drawn. That most of them are somewhat generic in outline is made palatable by Maberry's excellent dialog, which moves along at a snappy pace and gives all his cast as certain liveliness. A few character relations, however, really stand out for the detail and earnestness Maberry brings. Perhaps the most carefully written and sincerely gripping parts of the book have to do with the luckless newsboy Mike Sweeney and his abusive stepfather Vic Wingate.

For reader's who enjoy King-style epic scares, Dead Man's Song is a worthy follow-up to a promising debut.

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