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Dark Corner
By Bradon Massey
"A strange raven shows up. Clues begin to emerge, portents appear, chills skip along, rattle down,
and slice like lances of ice into various spines.
People start getting turned into vampires.
Good people that we liked. Bad things happen..."

Dark Corner
Brandon Massey
Dafina/Kensington / 450p / $14
ISBN: 0758202490

Dark Corner is a generic vampire novel. Massey is a slick young writer who does as good a job writing as one can do when filling in formula blanks.

Handsome bachelor David Hunter inherits a small fortune from Richard, his bestselling Pulitzer Prize-winning author-father, a man he really never knew. Included in the bequest is a house in the small Mississippi town of Mason's Corner. He packs up his Nissan Pathfinder with some clothes, a couple of computers (he's a webmaster), and his German Shepard named King and leaves Atlanta for Mason's Corner. Maybe, he thinks, he'll finally be able to discover something about dear old Dad who, though famous, was a bit mysterious. Even Richard's death -- he disappeared in a drowning accident and his body was never recovered -- is enigmatic.

The town is full of good folks, and it has a dark past personified in a brooding old mansion on a hill. (The place gives you a chill just looking at it.) David meets his neighbors, Ruby and Franklin Bennett, right off. Franklin -- David can tell he's trustworthy by his firm handshake -- is a wise retired professor who knows all the local lore. Seems locals call the town "Dark Corner" and the creepy mansion belonged to town founder Edwin Mason, an antebellum slave-owning cotton planter. On his first visit to the local park David meets Nia a gorgeous, intelligent, unattached woman, with a Labrador named Princess.

Meanwhile a rich, suave, seductive -- but not Byronic -- 168-year-old vampire Kyle Coiraut leaves his fabulously luxurious French life on a mission. Kyle has learned from Lisha, his indescribably beautiful mother, that his father, Diallo, is not, as he had always thought, dead. Diallo lies, deep in Sleep, entombed in a cave in a, yes, small town in Mississippi. Lisha, the oldest living vampire in the world and Mother to them all, warns Kyle that Diallo is an insatiably violent monster and is better left where he is, but Kyle is determined to dig up his Dad.

Kyle, equipped with civilized vacuum packs of blood (no need for human victims these days, just poke in a straw), moves into the sinister old mansion and causes some talk. David gets to know Nia. We get to know more of the townsfolk: Police Chief Van Jackson's who is having a little trouble with his teen-aged son; Junior, the slow but nice odd-jobber; Vicky Queen, a high class hooker with a heart of gold; the psychic Pearl; the insightful Reverend Brown...

Diallo, thanks to Kyle, awakens and proves to be a teensy bit less civilized than his son. He does rude things like suck humans dry and kill them, create vampire dogs, make a lot of heavy warrior talk, and, soon enough, creates an army of low-level vampires so he can take over the world. Diallo gives meaning to Kyle's life, uh, make that undeath: Why be a namby-pamby mama's vampire when you can be strong and potent like Dad?

Weird things are happening. It's apparent that David's legacy involves a lot more than a house and a few million bucks. He has been brought to Dark Corner for a Purpose. David's grandpa, 20 years dead, appears to him with a message. A strange raven shows up. Clues begin to emerge, portents appear, chills skip along, rattle down, and slice like lances of ice into various spines. People start getting turned into vampires. Good people that we liked. Bad things happen...

If you consider this "horror" then Brandon Massey's done his job. Read the book and have a fine time. But stop bothering to read this column because our definitions will never coincide.

'Cause this ain't horror for me.

cover To his credit, Massey writes well enough that I could keep reading the book. I already knew the characters, the situation, the outcome. The "twist" at the end was telegraphed early on. The only thing "different" about Dark Corner is that the characters are black and the town is predominately African-American, but not much is made of it. There's a superficial link between the horrors of slavery and horror period. There's a mild infusion of black culture. None of that changes the plot elements mentioned above and none of it makes much difference in the characters. (If playing the "casting game," I'd have Morgan Freeman as Franklin Bennett even it this were a small town in Maine.) Maybe there's an intended message about men (and vampires) who grow up without fathers, but if so, it backfires -- and it is obvious that Massey is too intelligent for that.

Because of the author's intelligence and his fundamental ability to write, Dark Corners is better than many of the formulaic novels of 20 years back when genre horror was having its heyday and a lot of people were trying to be Stephen King. And, face it, whether white people are comfortable admitting it or not -- there's more than a chance that, due to overt or unconscious racism, Massey would have had trouble being "allowed" into the genre club 20 years ago anyway. (Arguably, in the early 80s, there weren't many women admitted to that club either.)

But race isn't an issue here except to the extent that publishers have belatedly realized that black folks (and Latino folks and gay folks and...) buy books and have started ethnic marketing efforts. (Dark Corner is part of Kensington's Dafina imprint.)

Brandon Massey, like a lot of other writers today, grew up in a world full of imitations of imitations of Stephen King. They may even have fallen in love with horror reading King himself. Some of them learned the lessons King taught well and -- because they are, first and foremost writers, not imitators -- they write some damned good horror. Too many others, unfortunately, didn't learn enough from King (or about writing or horror) and are now imitating the imitators of imitators.

Stephen King was writing his only vampire novel around the time Brandon Massey was born in 1973. King was learning the mechanics needed to build his novels when he wrote 'Salem's Lot (published in 1975, two years after his debut Carrie came out). In fact, he used a lot of what became his trademark techniques for the first time in 'Salem's Lot. King used a lot of subplots, for instance, that intersect each other to build suspense while steadily advancing his main story then ties it all up at the end. The residents of 'Salems Lot embody the good, the bad, and the in-between and King shows the stresses and strains of that mix an isolated community. Small things inexorably escalate into evil. Eventually, of course, people must band together to defeat that evil, but that band is not exactly made up of purely "good people."

Few, if any, writers have ever shown the awareness and appreciation -- the sheer love -- King has for horror's literary traditions. He wrote 'Salem's Lot, as a form of "literary homage" to Bram Stoker's Dracula as well as a paean to the vampire stories in E.C. comics of the 1950s. He updated the archetype and made it fresh again. That, of course, isn't all that made him the phenomenon he later became

Books have been written about all this and I have nothing new to add, so I'll just sum up a part of the standard theory to refresh your memory. Along with a genius for making us cozy in his deceptively ordinary world, King weaves a subtext of his post-World War 2 generational fears into his stories. This lends an underlying realism that helps connect the reader with his or her personal emotion of fear. More than anything else (and I'm probably quoting somebody here) King uses horror to examine fundamental human drama.

In other words, it's not the vampires that are scary. For King himself, it was the empty town during the daylight hours that was the most frightening. The "things in closets," people under beds and the under the concrete pilings of trailers. He wrote the novel in 1973 during the Watergate hearings, and, as he has said, "Howard Baker kept asking, 'What I want to know is, what did you know and when did you know it?' That line haunts me, it stays in my mind.... I was thinking about secrets, things that have been hidden and were being dragged out into the light."

Another of the underlying horrors of 'Salem's Lot was its disconnected populace. Even before they start hiding from sunlight, they and their town were dead. Constable Gillespie even says, at one point, the town "ain't alive. That's why he came here. It's dead, like him... They prob'ly like bein' vampires." (The undead bringing undeath to those living but dead. There's some irony for you.)

Even back in 1973, you couldn't just set up a small town, imagine some characters, bring in a vampire and a hero and have a good novel. You couldn't write small scenes introducing people that don't always advance the whole. You couldn't take the tensions of a small town and do anything with them if the small town is full of pleasant folks with a lot in common and no tensions. Nor could you have a good horror novel without some real emotion at its core.

And in 2004? Stephen King would not even write 'Salem's Lot the same way.

Why have I taken up all this space ranting about Mr. Massey's book and Kingian horror? Because I see enough in Dark Corner to suspect that, like Stephen King, he really does love this stuff. I think he may have the ability to understand that horror is an emotion and not a kind of fiction, but he needs to learn his craft, find out what disturbs him (other than know-it-all reviewers), and write a novel for the 21st century.

And I doubt that anyone else will say it

-- from Cemetery Dance #49

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Copyright © 2004 by Paula Guran. All Rights Reserved.