Book Review: The Wicked (Shock Totem Publications)
Review by Marc Patterson
Kate Little has survived a nightmare. Raped in a New York City alleyway she’s brutalized and left barely alive. She comes out of it on the other end scarred, yet a survivor. Her and her husband David make the decision that they no longer want to raise their seven year old child Becca in this kind of world and so pack their belongings and move to the small town of Morganville North Carolina, hometown to Kate’s brother Joel, and a far cry from the gritty, crime-ridden city. Along the way we learn that Kate is expecting a baby and that the baby may not be David’s, which is the cause for serious marital strife. While David wants Kate to have an abortion, firmly believing the child to be the progeny of the rapist, Kate has a deeper more profound belief in God and knows the baby to be David’s, not that she would get an abortion anyway. The Bible certainly does not condone of such things.
What Kate and David don’t know they are getting into is a nightmare far worse than a rapist could inflict. The town of Morganville is under demonic attack from an ancient being named Moloch. It started with the Heller Home for Children, burned down by a youth gone insane, killing sixty children inside. As tragic an event as that evening was, The Heller Home for Children was only the beginning of a long and tortuous journey that will claim many lives in Morganville. For Moloch has come to claim the children of the town and will not stop until every last soul is his.
James Newman’s latest book, The Wicked, is a throwback novel to horror novels of the 80’s. In fact, being the editor of this fine horror cinema site I’d go so far as to say it evoked the spirit and atmosphere of 80’s horror cinema as well, such as is embodied in films as Prince of Darkness, The Unseen, and even a little bit – The Fog and In the Mouth of Madness. Yet, the story, taking on the familiar “small town under attack from evil” formula, is uniquely Newman’s and isn’t modeled after any horror film in particular. Call it truly “inspired by” the schlock fiction of the 80’s, but executed with more maturity and love for the genre.
At 325 pages long The Wicked is a surprisingly quick read thanks to Newman’s immersive storytelling that propels you deep into the pages at a frenzied pace. Time will be lost quickly as you rabidly consume this horrifying tale.
One of the things that I look for the most in any sort of novel is good use of characters. I had worries that this book, meant to evoke the spirit of 80’s, might lead to character development with limited depth, but Newman doesn’t fall into that trap. Instead, opposite to what you might think he provides us with deeply textured characters who are relatable and who become living, breathing entities that you genuinely care about. James’ use of dialogue and description grounds his characters in a concrete world that you can not only clearly imagine, but at times can even sense beyond the written page. This is a world he obviously knows and he pulls us in with his excellent use of description. Whenever one can, as a reader, fall into a space where you feel the cool damp morning dew soaking your leg, while the warmth of the sun hits your back and the musty burnt odor of a fire gone cold fills your nostrils, well then you’ve got a winner on your hands – and further a real rarity for a supernatural splattery horror novel.
Diving deeper with the characters, I enjoyed that Newman mixed up the main cast with both “the usuals”, meaning the Sheriff and his deputies, the local priest, etc, but also provided color with the next door neighbor, George Heatherly, a old, tattooed rough and tumble war vet and former Marine and then Kate’s brother Joel, who not only serves as the town’s coroner, but who is also gay, a detail that isn’t relegated to a footnote, but serves to add depth and complexity to the overall story. It’s these subtle nuances and attention to secondary character details that bring this novel to life in a three-dimensional way. I truly felt like I knew this town and knew these people, which is likely the best compliment I can give any writer. They are so relatable that you’d have to wonder if Newman modeled them all off of individuals he personally knows.
Critically speaking, I had some concerns. I was worried about the pairing of David and Kate, our two leads. This couple is an interesting pair to say the least. On one hand you have a fairly fundamentalist Christian in Kate and then you have David, a non-believer who paints grotesque fantasy covers to horror novels. You have to wonder how they ever hooked up, and how they’ve managed to stay together for all these years. Was this match-making even plausible? And with Kate’s brother Joel being gay, did Newman toss too much into the diversity pot?
Yet, even without explaining their connection, Newman shows his readers a real bond between Kate and David that makes all critical questions fade away. Love is love, and it’s obvious these two are soul-mates, oddly paired as they may be. Further, James is clearly writing from a space he knows about. There’s a depth of writing going on that draws from places and experiences that only fathers and husbands have had and can know. This maturity made The Wicked a far more enjoyable read than some of the more splatter heavy horror from younger writers. As much as it evokes the sensibilities of the 80’s, it’s also provides some real meat onto which we can latch.
As the story evolves it slowly becomes David’s tale, which I thought was a rather interesting choice. Often in the world of fictionalized horror, whether on screen or on the page, it’s the mother who protects her children. The father is typically expendable, a protector whose life expectancy only goes so far. But in these pages David takes on both the role of protector and nurturer. It’s a deliberate shift that occurs, and while it wasn’t expected it was a breath of fresh air, showing that Newman wasn’t afraid of doing something a bit unconventional with the supernatural thriller model.
My only real criticism is that I would have been interested to see Newman spend more time embedding himself deeper into the various sub-character’s points-of-view. He showed such an obvious connection with David and Kate that they overshadowed some of the lesser players at times. I would have loved to have learned more about George Heatherly,Sheriff Guice and Joel’s lover Michael. I think there could have been a stronger impact with some of the unexpected heroes that emerged had we the space to understand them a bit more.
Before I wrap this wordy review up – one thing I need to point out here, (and apologies in advance for any sermonizing that’s about to take place) is that this is the first novel from Shock Totem press, a small independently run publishing company who, up to this juncture, has been best known for producing some terrific short stories in their bi-annual publication of the same name. To date Shock Totem has featured short stories by writers such as John Skipp, Mercedes M. Yardley and conversations with the likes of Kathe Koja, as well as James Newman. It’s a top quality small press that’s consistent in what they produce and needs your support. I wouldn’t be so “preachy” about this except that guys like this aren’t plentiful these days and when you, as the consumer, are faced with making a decision about where to spend your hard earned cash I’d rather see you direct it to the likes of Shock Totem than to drop another pebble into the vast ocean of a larger publisher. These small publishers operate on a shoestring budget and like us – they do it for passion.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the totally kick-ass cover art, by Jesse David Young and Yannick Bouchard. Young created the imagery, while Bouchard handled the lettering, layout and distressed look. I purchased the original hardcopy of The Wicked back in 2007, when it was released in a very limited format from Necessary Evil Press, but was so impressed with this new softcover look that I had to make a point to purchase it again. (That’s right – I didn’t receive a review copy. One was offered to me, but it’s more important that I put my money where my mouth is and support small press by making a purchase). Plus, James went back, made revisions and updates to the original text, ultimately sharpening the story up, so I really wanted to see the improvements he made. No question, this is the definitive copy to own.
If you wish to purchase The Wicked, please do so by visiting Shock Totem directly, and avoiding Amazon. Doing so ensures that all of your money goes directly to supporting their efforts and will hopefully result in seeing more of these quality books down the road. I personally had a great experience with them. They shipped quickly and at $14.99 for a 6×9” paperback this is a very affordable novel, of high quality.