Brian Keene,
Dark Hollow
(Leisure, 2008)

I've read Brian Keene's take on zombies, demons and humungous worms.

He managed to really scare me, though, with an empty house in the woods.

A scene that places our main characters in an abandoned, dilapidated house where a murder took place a few decades before -- complete with footstep-like creaks in the floorboards above and eerily contorting trees outside -- is a seriously creepy scene.

It shows that Keene, who has no qualms about using gross and shocking images to evoke a reaction, has a good handle too on the more basic, visceral elements of horror. This isn't just scary, it's disturbing.

It all starts with one of the most unusual opening sentences I've ever seen in a novel. For propriety's sake, I won't repeat it here.

Dark Hollow, set in suburban York, Pa., sets a randy satyr loose on the countryside, and none of the women are safe. Because, while the goat-footed demigod's sinister pipes arouse uncomfortable reactions in both men and animals, they lure women into the woods for a little sex and violence.

The success of the novel is based in part on the strength of its characters -- primarily protagonist Adam Senft, a moderately successful novelist, and his dog, Big Steve. Their relationship alone kept me turning pages.

But there's also Tara, Adam's wife, who is suffering from depression after a pair of miscarriages and is drifting away from her husband. There's a group of neighbors -- Dale, Merle, Cliff and Cory -- and other townsfolk who are developed just enough to make their community feel real. There's Detective Ramirez, who's investigating a missing-persons report.

And then there's the forest that lies just outside their neighborhood. It's less a setting, more a character in its own right. Perhaps it's not all that big, as woods in over-developed Pennsylvania go, but there's something primal about it ... and maybe it's a little bigger inside than it seems from without.

At its core, a novel about a horny goat-man might seem pretty silly. But Keene infuses the story with a tangible sense of peril, and as wives and neighbors go missing, there's a genuine feeling of panic and dread in the air. The inclusion of Pennsylvania Dutch folk magic is a particularly nice touch.

The book drags a bit in the middle, when Senft finds and reads a guy's diary that sounds just a little bit too much like, well, a Brian Keene novel. But the lead-in to that scene and the action that follows will have you quickly forgetting that little hitch.

Some readers might think Keene lets his libido fly a little too freely in the book -- and really, how often do we need to hear about these guys and their straining erections? -- but given the carnal nature of the satyr myth, some degree of sexuality should be expected.

The ending seemed both abrupt and out of character. However, there's a sequel, so I'm willing to wait and see where Keene takes things next.

book review by
Tom Knapp

11 December 2010

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