Reviewed by Scott A. Johnson
Written by Gary Braunbeck
Published by Leisure Books
There are many types of horror in literature. Pulp horror, splat horror, psychological horror, and hundreds of other sub-genres pop to mind. One sub-genre that many authors chase, but is more elusive than legitimate photos of Bigfoot, is literary horror. Very few have made it into the literary pantheon, where horror gods like Shelley, Stoker, Poe and Lovecraft hold court. Gary Braunbeck may not be on the high bench yet, but he’s definitely standing at the gate, key in hand.
Coffin County centers around a series of seemingly random and bizarre slayings in the quiet town of Cedar Hill, Ohio. The trouble is that these murders all coincide with other strange killings from years ago, and the killers have a purpose, though what it is creates such a puzzlement that the final revelation will leave the reader speechless. It falls to detective Ben Littlejohn to discover not only his purpose, but the connection between the killer who calls himself “Hoopsticks” and a field of unmarked graves in the area locals call “Coffin County.”
Braunbeck has a knack for creating memorable characters with human flaws that allow the reader to relate to them. From his world- and life-weary detective to even the minor players, the characters come off less as creations of an authors mind, and more like recollected real people. They’re not one-dimensional, but rather come off as the people next door, people that the readers might know. What’s frightening is that even those characters that go on mass-murdering sprees come across the same way, as someone who might live next door.
In the realm of gore, few writers can touch Braunbeck for disturbing realism. During an early mass killing, Braunbeck’s perpetrator takes great pains in his executions, which Braunbeck describes in excruciatingly delicious detail. His descriptions of bullets ripping through human skulls and flesh peeling from burning limbs will have every reader squirming with delight. Not for the squeamish, Coffin County paints a brutal picture that makes a statement about remembering the dead, and how much it means in the end.
Also included in this book are two bonus short stories. The first, “I’ll Play the Blues for You,” is another demonstration of Braunbecks’s love of music and folklore. In this rendition of the old legend of the crossroads, an epic musical battle is waged for the fate of mankind. The second, “Union Dues,” is the story of a factory and the town from which it sucks the life.
If there were a weakness to this book, it is one that the author states right off. The book appears scattered in the beginning, which, for some readers, could stop them from finishing. However, as promised in the first paragraph of chapter two, eveything eventually comes together to create a compelling tale. The confusing nature of the first half of the book might be a turn-off, but stick with it. It’s worth the read.
Braunbeck is one of the best modern writers of gothic horror to emerge in the last twenty years. While there are many authors who can instill fear, make a reader cringe, and manipulate readers’ emotions, Braunbeck does it with sadistic glee. Whether describing the thought process of a teen-aged sniper or a horrific crime scene, his attention to detail and at times lyrical prose come together to create memorable stories. Coffin County is a disturbing, beautiful, and brutal tale that no fan of horror should miss.
4 1/2 out of 5
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