H.R. Howland,
(Berkley, 2005)

Whenever archaeologists unearth some relic of ancient evil in the southern hemisphere, it's usually a safe bet that it will somehow find its way into the northern hemisphere so that readers or moviegoers in the U.S. will pay attention to the terrors that ensue with their disposable income. In Ashes, the dug-up-and-dusted-off bad thing is a Mayan pottery jar found by some stock academics-who-should-know-better in Honduras. Inside the jar is a jade ring and the very pissed off spirit of a nasty priest-king that, luckily enough, can jump from body to body -- a nifty trait that enables it to speedily find its way from Central America to, of all places, southeastern Pennsylvania, but not before it celebrates its freedom after centuries confined in the Mayan version of Tupperware with a predictable bout of murder and corpse raping.

Sigh. Except for the spirit's odd choice of destination, we've seen this a hundred times before, haven't we? Here's a contemporary horror novel that seemed bound and determined to confront me with nearly all of my pet peeves about this genre: pages of unimportant details devoted to the life stories of minor characters who will be summarily killed at the end of the chapter; the overuse of rambling, italicized monologues to peek into characters' heads; a series of shocking and obviously unnatural deaths that attracts little or no attention from the outside world; subplots that go absolutely nowhere after veritable chapters worth of foreshadowing ... I could go on, but won't.

The fact that I still ended up, for the most part, liking Ashes probably says more about my fondness for its setting -- Aronston, a thinly fictionalized version of Hershey, Pa., and its nearby countryside (a region I once lived in) -- than it does about the strengths of the story telling. If nothing else, author H.R. Howland (actually a pseudonym for co-authors Holly Newstein and Ralph Bieber) deserve some respect for taking a brave stab at melding the nearly prehistoric Mayan menace angle of their tale with a more recent and down-home kind of horror from the dark pages of Aronston's Colonial past.

And there's a certain turn-your-brain-off kind of pleasure to be found when Howland gets past the turgidness of too many small-town characters stumbling around the edges of the story and cranks up the action with passages like:

Roger heard a faint rustle behind him. He spun around again and saw the gallows crowd from yesterday. Their clothing had rotted away in places, and sickly gray-green skin hung from their bones like rags. Some had their inner organs exposed, leaking pus and thick black fluid onto the ground. ... Roger spun in panic, saw a gap between the desiccated bodies and ran. He pushed through the people, their odor filling his lungs and making him want to retch. One man spat at him as he shoved past, a brown-black gob of foul stuff that burned Roger's cheek like pure acid.

Yum. Still, I wish that Howland had thought through some of the less straightforward meanderings of this tale to better destinations. For instance, that jade ring that was found in Honduras vanishes from the plot for most of the book, getting mentioned now and again just to remind us it exists at all, and then finally reappears to little dramatic effect. And then there's a minor character who somehow manages to conceive of, research, write, cast, practice and stage an entire play about the aforementioned Colonial-era badness in Aronston within a matter of days -- surely with all of the setup that we get about this play it would have been nice for it to actually have had some importance to the resolution of the story ... but, no, it's just another trail of nonsense leading to soggy ashes instead of a roaring fire.

As I said before, I could go on, but won't. If only Howland had come to that same conclusion while working on this uneven but ultimately promising debut novel.

by Gary Cramer
28 January 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.