Story: 1963: eight year old Eric Langren is the only survivor of a single-car accident that kills both of his parents; his father lives just long enough to whisper a cryptic warning to Eric. Over 20 years later, Eric returns to his hometown in Maine for the first time, under the assumed name of Eric Matthews. After several recent inexplicable events, each followed by a voice urging Eric to come home, he’s seeking the truth of what happened – only to find out that something else is happening there, something dark and disturbing, a series of horrific events to which Eric may be more intimately tied than he can imagine.
Review: I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t go reading a whole lot of fiction, particularly not horror – just not my thing, really (working day-to-day in TV news, I suppose one gets one’s fill of inexplicable horrors). I was intrigued to see the re-release of J. Michael Straczynski’s much-sought-after debut novel “Demon Night”, however. Originally published in 1988, “Demon Night” won its share of acclaim at the time, and the finite number of used copies have become collectors’ items in light of Straczynski’s popular SF creations since then.
It’s hard not to examine “Demon Night” without also thinking of those subsequent projects, too, because there just seems to be so much in common: an ages-old war between forces of good and evil, one man whose destiny is intertwined with these events who may (or may not) be fated to save the world, and of course that famous JMS wit permeating the dialogue. Now, to be fair, the conflict between light and night in “Demon Night” isn’t anywhere near as textured as Babylon 5’s war of philosophies, and to give due credit to other influences, “Demon Night” seems to be riding the coattails of Stephen King more than anything else JMS may have been dreaming up at the time (the orignal concept for Babylon 5 having originated around this time as well). That he even quotes King for a thumbnail description of the story’s setting – a quote that’s also repeated on the back cover blurb – is probably the most glaring example. Not just King, either: as much as I like JMS’ work and hate to say he’s being less than original, there are plenty of well-worn devices of the horror genre in play here, right down to the seamy underbelly of a small Maine town, a Catholic priest who finds his faith under attack by the forces of darkness, and a near-mythic hero – possibly the chosen of God – with the power to stave off the end of the world. It seems like the story’s bad guys are sporting influences from vampire, werewolf and demonic possession tales. In the newly written afterword, Straczynski fesses up to the “inevitable flaws and excesses of any first novel,” so while I seem to have spent a lot of time noticing these very things, I’m willing to write them off.
And why’s that? Because for all of its perhaps-too-obvious influences showing, “Demon Night” is a damned interesting story, filled with characters that I quickly grew to care about (and a few to whom I found myself hoping something horrible would happen – turns out my wishes were a bit on the conservative side). JMS’ gift of characterization is prominently on display in this book, with plenty of sparkling dialogue, the sort of witty stuff I only wish I could come up with in real life. The book’s antagonists seem to anticipate some of the Jungian influences of the Shadows or Midnight Nation’s Walkers, though here we spend less time on the precise whys and, more appropriately for a horror novel, dwell more on the very disquieting hows. One last thing that I did cringe a bit at was the chapter-long info-dump that explains to the main character (and the reader) what’s going on at long last. Sad thing is, I’m not sure what the alternative to this unwieldly bit of exposition would have been.
Overall, for all of the things I seem to have singled out here, it’s an enjoyable book that at least starts out interesting with an engaging cast of characters, and then cranks up the tension several dozen notches about halfway through the story. Not bad for a first novel at all.
Year: 1988 (reprinted 2003)
Author: J. Michael Straczynski
Publisher: ibooks / Simon & Schuster