Reviewed by Elaine Lamkin
Written by Michael Pennington
Distributed by Lulu Books
There are not that many things that give me the creeps. Clowns do (thank you, Stephen King and Pennywise), Spanish moss does (if you don’t live in the South, you probably can’t appreciate the sheer eerie-ness of Spanish moss – see The Skeleton Key, The Beguiled, Hush…Hush Sweet Charlotte, Dead Birds, pretty much any movie shot south of Atlanta, Georgia) as well as autumnal cornfields (try walking through a dead cornfield on a cold, windy night. I rest my case). Ventriloquist dummies I could do without – Dead Silent, Magic – and mannequins: Tourist Trap and now this book, Death by Darkness. But the mannequin in Arkansas writer Michael Pennington’s novel is not like the mannequins that were so creepy in the 1979 Chuck Conners’ film. Pennington’s mannequin is a much older one – a wooden one. Google wooden mannequin and then click on Images and you will see what I mean. These sumbitches are WEIRD!!!
Death by Darkness has some very original and unique ideas going on, aside from the wooden mannequin. Set in the small town of Redlake in southwest North Dakota in the late autumn and winter, you just can’t find a much more desolate setting. Add to that a protagonist, Dumas Harvey, who has suffered from schizophrenia his entire life, his childhood friend, the no-bullshit Chloe, Dumas’ doting mother, Lynn, the town’s antiques and oddities dealer, Gerrit along with some almost cartoonish bullies who make Dumas’ life a living hell and it doesn’t take the reader long to figure that the mannequin, mysteriously found in a junkyard, and the bullies in Dumas’ life are going to come together in some extremely unpleasant ways.
The book opens with a flashback to Dumas in high school and how he is the target for some incredibly vicious bullying from town rednecks, Daniel Balentine and Ronny Arwood. I did have a problem with the repeated bullying of Dumas, which continues throughout the book – Dumas didn’t want to press charges because he thought it would make things worse. By the time Dumas, Daniel and Ronny are in their mid-20s, the time the novel covers, how much worse could things get? These guys have put Dumas in the hospital more times than you can count. Kind of hard to believe the cops couldn’t do anything about these two assholes. But then if they were in jail, there would be no story for Death By Darkness is about Dumas’ revenge on these guys as well as some other townfolk he feels have persecuted him.
When the murders start, they are pretty graphic (gorehounds should love this) and the author has left the reader with some doubt as to who (or what) is commiting these crimes. Dumas keeps the mannequin, which he has named Olly, in the woods behind his house as his mother is too creeped out by the thing. And these woods do become almost another character – there are several creepy scenes where Chloe or Gerrit try to find Olly in the woods to get the mannequin away from Dumas. See, the mannequin has possessed Dumas and, as the story progresses, the reader is treated to just HOW deeply the mannequin has established control. And it’s quite unpleasant.
At one point, when Dumas’ mother has taken him to his psychiatrist to see what is going on with her son, Gerrit and Chloe do manage to find Olly and Gerrit takes the thing (did I mention it is life-size?) to his shop to do some research on where it could have come from and what the hell it is. At this point in the story, the reader is given some background on Malaysian folklore as it applies to these wooden dolls. Not sure how accurate this information is but the bottom line is that these dolls can either be used to protect children (Dumas may be 25 but he has the characteristics of someone younger) or they can be used for evil. Being a horror novel, protecting Dumas really isn’t Olly’s raison d’être.
The murders continue and get much more gruesome and by the end of the story, when all hell breaks loose, the reader is treated to shocks that they probably didn’t see coming.
On the whole, I really enjoyed Death by Darkness. The story really moves (I wanted to know what happened next and stayed up WAAYY too late reading in order to do so. On several occasions.) and Dumas’ character is one readers should feel sympathy towards – he has a terrible disease, schizophrenia, and then finds this ghastly mannequin which takes advantage of Dumas’ fragile mental state. There are some seriously creepy scenes where some of the townfolk are awakened in the middle of the night by something lurking outside their windows and there is a scene in the town cemetery…gross! I do wish the author could have written more about the town of Redlake itself – I never had a feel for the place (but then I’ve been spoiled by Stephen King, Dan Simmons and Robert McCammon who all really know how to establish a sense of place). There were also some rather annoying repetitions – I got it the first time that Chloe was a beautiful woman with a great body. Didn’t need to have my nose practically rubbed in that. The fact that the Harveys live in a two-story house didn’t need to be repeated ad nauseum. The bullies, Daniel and Ronny? Okay, we KNOW they’re the bad guys (and childish ones at that) – that fact didn’t need to be reinforced constantly. And there were a few instances of out-of-left field behavior – Chloe and the town’s detective, Okeene, having a fling right when things are really getting bad was the biggest WTF? (like horror films, I guess horror writers need to put in at least one gratuitous sex scene). I realize that this is Pennington’s second book and he does show some serious chops for the horror genre but he really needs a GOOD editor.
Other than these problems, the book itself is one I would recommend. You have a great setting: rural North Dakota in the winter. A unique character in Dumas. A plot that keeps you guessing and when was the last time you read about a demonic wooden mannequin? Or had people killed in such graphic and grotesque ways? Creepy, gruesome, isolated town in winter, creepy doll – what more could a horror fan ask for? Check it out!!
3 out of 5
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