No, it’s not Stephen King’s NEEDFUL THINGS, although you’d be forgiven for thinking that. The plots are eerily similar, but honestly, it wasn’t a terribly original plot to begin with. The whole “make a deal with the Devil” and “be careful what you wish for” scenarios were showing signs of age back when Rod Serling was pulling them out for every fourth episode of THE TWILIGHT ZONE.
Note #1 (of 2): If it appears that I’m making disparaging remarks, rest assured I’m not. I’m a huge fan of THE TWILIGHT ZONE, as well as a fan of stories of wishes gone wrong (W.W. Jacobs’ “The Monkey’s Paw”). And really, is there a better antagonist for a horror story than the Devil?
In DARKNESS WHISPERS, authors Richard Chizmar and Brian James Freeman deliver their own take on the idea: An old man with “piercing gray eyes” walks into a small western Pennsylvania town. He asks those he comes into contact with to share their “secret dream.” In return for helping them fulfill it, he asks for a favor. The favor, of course, always turns out to be something bad.
When I first saw the sliver of a novel (160 pages) and read the synopsis, I thought Mr. Chizmar and Mr. Freeman might deliver a condensed version of NEEDFUL THINGS. I’ve previously talked about how, despite compelling plotlines, King’s novels are unnecessarily bloated and contain more filler than a fast food hamburger. So if Chizmar and Freeman have produced a slimmed down version of one of his stories, then I was geared up to enjoy it.
And at first, I did. The story starts off quickly and doesn’t waste time with mood or setting. Characters are introduced and we get to meet the major players. There’s the old man, who may or may not be Satan, who tempts those he comes across. There’s the hero/protagonist, a tortured war vet turned family man and town sheriff. There’s a few oddball, small town characters thrown in the mix.
Unfortunately, it all goes by too fast and we never get to really sympathize or care for the characters. Sheriff Logan gets most of the focus as he desperately works to keep the small town from the oncoming and escalating bloodbath. The action ramps up quickly…and that’s part of the problem. Yes, folks, there’s a line between too much and not enough, and the authors definitely sway towards the “not enough” side.
DARKNESS WHISPERS races too quickly towards its climax and leaves out much of the good stuff along the way. There’s lots of horrific violence, but much of it happens off-camera, which is refreshing at first, but ultimately unsatisfying after the first few times. Imagine watching a FRIDAY THE 13TH movie and never seeing Jason kill anyone. Just the corpses stacking up.
Note #2 (of 2): I’m not a fan of FRIDAY THE 13TH movies. It just seemed like a good example to use here.
There’s too much left unseen and unanswered: Is the old man the Devil? Why does he sometimes have godlike powers, and other times not? What are the secret dreams that the people confess to him, and why are they so quick to accept his offer? The majority is never answered and eventually the story strays into THE DEAD ZONE territory before ending on another, slightly different cliché.
Richard Chizmar and Brian James Freeman are accomplished horror writers and the book certainly doesn’t fail because it’s poorly written. It fails because in the authors’ efforts to keep the story streamlined, they left out too much. It could’ve used a better ending, too, if I’m being honest. —Slade Grayson