Ranting & Slashing: If You’re Not Reading F. Paul Wilson, You Should Be
At first glance, I’m hard-pressed to pick a favorite when considering the list of amazing horror authors out there. There are plenty of writers in the fray whose work I’ll anxiously devour whenever a new book hits the shelves: Stephen King, Clive Barker, Bentley Little, Jack Ketchum, Skipp & Spector, Brian Keene, Edward Lee – the list is seriously endless.
Having recently acquired a Kindle, I spent the last seven months filling it with the works of my favorite novelists. In reviewing the virtual library I’ve accumulated, I was surprised to find the results so heavily weighted in one particular writer’s favor. From vampires, ancient evils, a recurring anti-hero and a sprawling menagerie of secret and supernatural histories, there is perhaps no writer as ambitious and fascinating as F. Paul Wilson.
Wilson’s first bestseller was 1981’s World War II horror story, The Keep, a page-turner about German soldiers and SS troopers holed up in an ancient keep nestled within a Romanian mountain pass. The setting makes for a nifty play on the traditional, Gothic atmosphere found in prototypical vampire lore, and the combination of strong characters (an elderly Jewish professor, a sympathetic German commander, a villainous SS officer and a mysterious stranger), along with layered plotting, creates a classic horror novel. It was so damn good that Michael Mann infamously butchered it beyond belief while adapting it for the big screen in 1983. Gone were the intentionally measured story (one of the biggest surprises of the book is inexplicably abandoned) and richly drawn characters, jettisoned in favor of overdone color palettes and hokey special effect light shows. Love that Tangerine Dream score, though.
Wilson wrote stuff before The Keep, but it was his follow-up novel, The Tomb, that introduced us to his most popular (and enduring) creation, Repairman Jack. Forget about the nonsensical title (it was publisher-imposed to recall the success of The Keep) and focus on the delightful ride. The Tomb, set in modern-day New York City, unfolds as equal parts creature feature and detective story. The twisting narrative finds our protagonist hired to retrieve a stolen family heirloom necklace while contending with an army of seemingly unkillable ancient creatures. Repairman Jack is an inspired character: a ‘Mr. Fixit’ for atypical situations who lives completely off the grid and away from Big Brother’s watchful eye. His presence resonated not only with Wilson’s readers but in the mind of the author himself.
There were fourteen years between Jack’s first and second adventures, and it was initially unclear as to whether or not he even survived the events of his initial outing. Jack has found himself knee-deep in trouble time and time again throughout fifteen literary adventures (with a sixteenth – and final – on the way this year) and three ‘young adult’ prequels set throughout the 1980s. And this stuff is fun. Wilson isn’t afraid to mix it up, throwing Jack into a variety of odd situations: murder and conspiracy amidst a sci-fi convention, investigating an increasingly bizarre set of circumstances in a Florida retirement community or infiltrating a Scientology-like cult to track down a missing member. Any Repairman Jack book is going to entertain with sharp wit, breakneck pacing and unpredictable plotting. Plus, he’s a horror fan to boot, collecting cool movie memorabilia and staging James Whale movie marathons in his down time. What a likable fellow!
What’s interesting about F. Paul Wilson’s bibliography is how he’s chosen to use his previous work as building blocks toward something more epic and substantial. The Keep and The Tomb weren’t necessarily intended as the beginning of a six-volume series known as the ‘Adversary Cycle,’ but that’s the way it ended up. Wilson forged ahead with new ideas and found a way to connect his earliest fiction through future installments. The first three books play as separate, one-off stories until the cracks are slowly filled in throughout the final three novels, Reborn, Reprisal and Night World. The end result offers a far-reaching epic of Lovecraftian evil complete with ancient enemies, the corruption of innocents and a gigantic battle for the fate of the world.
If the sprawling nature of the ‘Adversary Cycle’ and the Repairman Jack saga seem like daunting tasks to explore (they shouldn’t), Wilson happens to be responsible for some inspired, stand-alone horror fiction as well. Midnight Mass, a post-apocalyptic piece of vampiric horror, explores the aftermath of a massive bloodsucker invasion on the East Coast. Humanity is herded as cattle while the vampires employ small groups of people (dubbed ‘Cowboys’) to search for survivors in the daylight.
Wilson claims to have been inspired to restore some of the proverbial edge to the vampire genre in the wake of Ann Rice and a legion of wannabe knockoffs. The vampires of Midnight Mass are actual monsters a la I Am Legend and Salem’s Lot. They’re formidable and remorseless killers, the type that delights in tormenting the lingering vestiges of local humankind by desecrating a church and forcing the pastor-turned-vampire to reside there. The kingdom of these vampires is so oppressive it’s impossible not to root for the small band of unlikely heroes, each with their own demons to overcome, and Wilson makes some interesting comments about faith and love along the way without preaching.
Wilson has proven to be quite prolific, churning out an impressive quantity of novels over his 30-plus years in the industry. You’re never getting the same story twice when it comes to him (even Stephen King has cannibalized himself), and he’s rarely confined to one kind of story. Take, for example, the romantic historical horror epic Black Wind, which interweaves several genres with resounding success. He can stray into graphic, psychological horror with Sibs - an erotic and disturbing study of secret identity - and delve deeper into the human psyche with Mirage (imagine a more intelligent version of The Lawnmower Man film). Wilson can abandon horror entirely while still managing wrenching suspense with a series of straight-up medical thrillers (Deep as the Marrow, The Select) or religious mystery (in the pre-DaVinci Code novel Virgin). He even nails science fiction with the creepy ’what if’ fantasy Sims - involving a species of genetically altered primates and a devious corporate mystery. Wilson never falters when exploring new territory, and it’s because of this confident storytelling that each new book is an arrival to behold.
Very few authors nail it each time out, and fewer find continued success once they start hopping genres (anyone else try reading Dennis Lehane’s historical snoozer The Given Day?), but this doesn’t seem to slow F. Paul Wilson. No matter the story, know that you’re guaranteed strong characters, smart storytelling and great writing time and time again. Be sure to check out his official website for additional information, and remember to look him up on Amazon, where you eReaders can load a good chunk of his fiction onto your Kindles for $3 bucks a pop. Trust me; that’s a steal.
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