“DARLING” (Book Review)
As a general rule, love means never having to say “I’m gonna hack you up, stick your pieces in a lawn-sized garbage bag, drag ‘em across a long dark field to the scary-ass abandoned strip mall on the other side, and pass you through a doorway into the hungriest darkness you’ve ever dreamed.”
But love does a lot of strange things – mostly tragic, and ultimately horrific as hell – in Brad C. Hodson’s ambitious debut novel from longtime small press stalwart Bad Moon Books.
This is a “Very Bad Place” story, full of ghosts and worse, very much in the tradition of King’s THE SHINING, with more than a little of Straub’s GHOST STORY vibrating influentially through its elaborate architecture. Which is to say that it aims high by digging deep and wide, both historically and emotionally, before it brings the horror hammer down.
A couple of young guys score a primo apartment at Raynham Place, a former tuberculosis hospital turned atmospheric residential dwelling, where the uncomfortably erotic statues of nymphs and satyrs that festoon the grounds set a tone of mythic horniness and danger that, of course, they do their best to ignore.
Shit gets weird, slowly and often subtly, weaving itself into their psyches and lives in baby steps that seem lightweight at first, but gradually build up their creep factor, layering the nightmare bit by bit. Before you know it, it’s getting under your skin and theirs, the inferred becoming palpable.
So by the time shit starts blowing up for real – and believe me, it does – we’ve been pre-chilled with a handful of sequences pretty accurately designed to make our short hairs stand up in the kind of classic old-school terror that most modern horror barely tries for, much less reaches.
To paraphrase King: genuine terror is the best. If you can’t get to that, try horror. And if that doesn’t work, you go for the gross-out.
Hodson wisely hedges his bets by playing all three, and saving the nastiest for last. So if you spent the first 250 pages going “When the fuck are somebody’s eyes gonna pop while their skin melts off?”, well, HANG IN THERE! Fangorian gore-freaks will not be disappointed by how hardcore it gets.
Does it rise to the level of greatness that THE SHINING and GHOST STORY achieved? No. But it does its damndest.
And the thing that struck me throughout was that King and Straub were several novels into their careers before they attempted anything this layered and well, ambitious. For Hodson to tackle this material on his first time out takes a whole lot of balls, and considerable skill. Both of which he clearly has.
In its willingness to invoke both Shirley Jackson-style evocative restraint and full-tilt extreme horror mayhem, Hodson’s DARLING is a sweetheart indeed, giving us a fine first glimpse of a formidable talent in the making.