Author: Jonathan Janz
Publisher: Sinister Grin Press
Release date: March 2016
Jonathan Janz is not a particularly well-known horror writer, and compared to his peers is fresh to the genre. Such a thing is exciting, not least because in the wake of a highly successful old guard of writers there has been a decided lack of innovation and risk-taking. In order for horror to remain strong and relevant, a generous injection of new ideas is needed. Hence a great of hope and expectation, perhaps a little unreasonably, rests on the shoulders of Mr Janz and his peers.
This book ‘Children of the Dark‘ has been highly rated on many reader forum sites, so it would seem a good bet to start here in exploring the new school of horror novelists.
Will Burgess is a teenage boy from a troubled and fatherless home, who cares for his sister in place of a drug-addled mother. We follow him and two childhood friends, Chris and Barley, in their struggles to deal with both the brutal realities of family life in a small community and unnatural forces. Both of these conflicts will test those friendships to their limit and beyond, in the most devastating of ways.
Through a series of awkwardly warm-blooded encounters, Will vies for the attention of Mia, a girl he has shared a connection with since childhood. Meanwhile he, Chris and Barley do their best to avoid the violent reactions of her boyfriend and his meathead pals. The earlier chapters give us a window into the town of Shadeland, with some foreshadowing slowly building towards a serial killer and creature-oriented plot later on.
Jonathan Janz is a capable and effective writer, building shared histories and motivations at a shrewdly managed pace that cannot be faulted. It is interesting to note that this book very easily passes the Bechdel Test, as Mia and friend Rachel, along with Will’s little sister Peach and his mother all have decent arcs – arguably forming the moral backbone of the tale. He also very clearly understands that horror is most effective when left unexplained, leaving space for the reader’s imagination to fill in the blanks. The latter chapters are given over to a frenetic cocktail of ramping action and survivalist tension, while also giving well-judged hints to a more terrifying danger on the horizon beyond the book’s epilogue.
In fact, what is bizarre is how tantalising that largely unseen terror is, to the point where this book could easily have been longer. While the teasing is nicely managed, the sudden opening of the possible scope could easily have lead to another two acts at least, with plenty more room for one or more books coming in as sequels.
Despite all this, there are some glaring flaws that stem from its very strengths, odd though that may seem. Horror fans, long soaked in the tropes on display here, may long for a fresh experience and to see that the genre has moved on from the ‘80s/’90s, past Stephen King and Dean Koontz into pastures new. The problems with this book are part of larger issues with those same static elements. The teen drama is King’s ‘Stand By Me’ and the more out-there features have partial fingerprints of ‘The Tommyknockers’ or Koontz’s ‘Watchers’ all over them. If you know those books and their ilk, then the well-trodden furrows of such similarities will suck you out of the immersion Janz works so very hard to create.
The structure and dialogue feel like a movie script or written with adaptation in mind, conforming tightly to a very cinematic three act construction. In the end, if you’re a horror fan you will pick up on familiar strains within this remix album, and the song very much remains the same. You could get a kick out of it, as the author has a slick style with a terrific sense of the macabre – but for those seeking fresh thrills, you may accept rougher edges if it means taking risks to traverse the unknown.
I give Children of the Dark a solid THREE and a half cleavers out of five.