Thursday, 1 July 2010

The Creeping Reality of a Maestro of the Macabre

There must be almost as many ways to define ‘creepy’ as there are demons in a legion.

Is Jan Strnad’s Risen hair-raising? The back of my neck felt like there was an ants’ jamboree in full swing. Does it scare the living daylights out of you? I was too pussy to turn out the lights. Does it make you suspicious about the cake the neighbours just brought round? Tell you the truth; I even secretly poured the tea Skovia just made into a plant pot in case it was laced with rat poison. And it seems to me that aspidistra is wilting.

But in describing Risen as ‘creepy’ I’d have something else in mind entirely. Like others of my disreputable breed – the ‘editorial analyst’ – I’d be talking about its simmering style, its perfectly calculated pace, the steady and painstaking establishment of vivid scenes and strong characters, the small-town reality that so naturally suspends any disbelief ... and how, only having carefully and nefariously lulled you into a sense of security, does Jan Strnad hold his breath, rise to his tiptoes, and quietly creep up behind you to plant his unearthly nightmares.

When I’d rubbed away the goose flesh, I realised and could fully appreciate and admire just what expert, ‘creepy’ authoring I’d just experienced.

The little town of Anderson, as real as your own neighbourhood, the characters at the diner, in the street, on the farms, so undeniably flesh-and-blood you wouldn’t be surprised if they popped by to borrow a cup of sugar, are so skilfully made familiar that when Anderson turns to an outpost of hell and its inhabitants into blood-lusting monsters from the pit, it’s all as utterly believable as if Strnad had introduced an outbreak of measles into his storyline rather than a plague of the undead.

This triumph over rationality and scepticism prompted me re-evaluate a decision I’d made forty years ago to turn my back on the ‘horror’ genre with its cardboard spooks, zombies and vampires. BeWrite Books has never even considered submissions that skip into the fright fantastic.

Maybe we should think again with scribes like Strnad around. Perhaps we’d do well to remember the 1956 movie, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and the panic that followed the all-too-real CBS radio adaptation of HG Wells’ War of the Worlds read on Halloween night 1938 by Orson Welles. Time to forget Ed Wood’s 1959 Plan Nine From Outer Space and the B-movie-style pulp novels that rode on the back of the YA appetite for fast-food zombies and vampires and that took hold of the slushpile end of the books market.

Much more than King and Rice ever did (reading them is put down to ‘research’), Strnad has reminded me that a story is a story, that fiction is fiction, and that all we read and savour is as real as it is unreal if presented by a creeping master of his craft.

Knowing its genre – the pigeon hole into which every novel is wickedly forced – I opened this book reluctantly. A generous 400+ pages later, I closed it even more reluctantly, and in a cold sweat. The pages had turned almost supernaturally. There had been no point at which to comfortably stop and draw breath.

This is such a rare gem of a chiller, not because you can wind up believing the horror could happen in your home town, but because there are times when you can’t help feeling it already has!

I’m a ‘convert’. And if you read Jan Strnad’s Risen – which I highly recommend you do (well before midnight) – you’ll know that claim is a lot creepier than it sounds.

Neil Marr

Risen. Jan Strnad
ISBN: 978-1-4523-2048-9 (Smashwords Edition) : $4.95 (all popular ebook formats)

Amazon Kindle version, $4.95:

The print versions to be announced. Coming to other ebook and paperback online retail outlets.

Jan Strnad's website:

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