Written by Jonathan Maberry
Published by Pinnacle Fiction (Kensington Books)
Evil never dies. It just waits, and grows stronger in the dark. That’s the central message in Ghost Road Blues, the remarkable first novel from Jonathan Maberry.
Thirty years ago, the Bone Man (actually a blues musician and migrant farm worker) killed the devil (actually a serial killer) with his guitar, ending a bloody rampage that had the citizens of the small town at their collective wits’ ends. For his efforts, however, a few of the town’s less savory, and mentally unbalanced, types beat him to death and hung him on a scarecrow pole, thinking him to be the monster. Only two people knew the truth, children who almost became victims of the monster themselves. Now, thirty years later, strange events begin to unfold in the little town that signal the return of the serial killer, punctuated by frequent sightings of an old blues musician with graveyard dirt on his suit and terrible dreams for those that know the truth.
A few things immediately leap out at the reader. For one, Maberry’s attention to detail is neither minimal nor overpowering. He has the touch of a seasoned pro (which figures, considering he’s been writing non-fiction for years) when setting a scene. Through his description, Pine Deep becomes more than a fictional town, and becomes instead a real place, full of real people. It is a credit to his abilities that the forest looms so menacingly, that the clouds hang so low, all with enough realism to make the reader feel that the town exists in more than Maberry’s imagination.
Similarly vivid are Maberry’s characters. The character of Crow (whose first name of Malcom is seldom used) is a flawed mess, dragging his life out of turmoil that started with the death of his brother at the hands of a madman. Through his struggles with inner demons, Crow shows the reader what it means to be human. Likewise, Crow’s girlfriend, Val, is the type of strong female lead that any girl should have as a role model. The character of Karl Ruger is the epitome of twisted hate, cold and vicious, and yet even he is treated with loving care, giving him dimension instead of letting him be a caricature. The minor characters are treated with equal respect, as they are all fleshed out to be real human beings. For example, fourteen year-old Iron Mike, is one of the most sympathetic characters in the story, as his step father beats him with sadistic glee, all the while harboring a terrible secret about the boy that will surely harm him more than any blow from his hand. Or the mayor, who’s mental state at the death of his sister thirty years before have him downing a dangerous cocktail of antipsychotics and antidepressants to stave off the visions of her tattered body that haunt him. Also, the characters of the town that do the work of evil are equally well drawn, each reveling in their dark nature.
One area where Maberry shines, and seldom falters, is in the area of dialogue. From the tongue-in-cheek jibes that the characters play to the frighteningly realistic barbs thrown by Ruger toward his victims, it is clear that Maberry knows how his characters think and feel. It also opens up the story for a few comedic moments that are not easily pulled off by many authors. Maberry executes them with ease.
There are, however, one or two areas where Maberry falls short, though such problems will more than likely be rectified in future volumes. First, of all the fascinating characters in the book, none should be more fascinating than the Bone Man or Ubel Griswold, the serial killer. Yet neither of these characters move beyond their purpose of being one-dimensional bogey-men. True, a great deal is made of what they both did, but there is no real character development to either character, which seems odd considering the rest of the characters are so vividly drawn.
Also, and this is more irritating, but in a good way, the reader doesn’t realize until he has zoomed to the end that he’s actually reading the first in a series. The places where the story seems to have loose ends, the few characters that seem to have been written and forgotten, and the two with the least development seem to tease the reader from just beyond the back cover. It’s irritating in that the reader wants to know what happens, yet has to wait for the next book. It’s good that Maberry can generate such interest through words on the page, a credit to his abilities.
As is stated, this book appears to be the first in a series, continuing the adventures in Pine Deep. The last few pages of this book are, in fact, a prelude to the next installment. If it is anything like the preview, readers should get ready for one hell of a ride. In all, Maberry may have been honing his craft for years with nonfiction, but his fiction is well worth the wait. It delivers scare after scare, lulling the reader into a sense of security before jolting them upright, squeezing them with the tenacity of a snake, and leaving them breathless and begging for more.
4 1/2 out of 5
Discuss Ghost Road Blues in our forums!