I don’t know about you, but the possibility of a return to my hometown for a reunion with a group of my peers is more than enough context to elicit terror. I don’t need to add any eldritch visions of avenging town founders — or scary, toothy clowns and oversized spiders — to send shivers down my spine.
Yet there must be something primal about that metaphor; every other horror writer trots out the misfit team for just such battles, usually in two parallel time-frames. The kids fall into and then challenge some Evil; the grown-up group re-convenes, re-discovers their bonds, re-assesses who they really are, and re-ups for the Final Showdown.
I am pretty sure Stephen King will get another licensing fee, but a horror fan could do a lot worse than Russell James’ riff on this motif in SACRIFICE.
In 1980, a band of pranksters calling themselves the Dirty Half Dozen find themselves able to see a spectral siren who lures children to their doom. A young girl chases a vision of a boy with a super-cool bubble-blower into traffic; our heroes see a “carrot-nosed,” green-eyed horror with flayed face and a colonial hat, but in the aftermath — trying to catch this culprit — they realize that no one else can see him.
The 1980 time-strand tracks the hardy boys’ investigation, discovering a figure who’s been preying on the children of the towns’ founders for centuries. Thirty years later, the men return to town for a funeral of one of theirs, only to realize that the Woodsman is still at work.
James has a knack for details that flesh out character (one of the teens weas a ratty concert T-shirt with pride, although he never saw the show). And there are a few moments where he shakes off the shackles of convention and evokes something deeply unsettling, as in a dream where a tentacled-bearish creature emerges from a pond, scouring the shore to flay the flock of children playing there.
But he also leans heavily on the shortcuts made possible by genre: the smart-ass banter between the Half Dirty Dozen, the wounded men blah blah redeeming their truer selves blah in the return battle, the somewhat worn-out high jinks of the Woodsman himself — all your favorite menu items from the Big Steve King burger shop.
It is a fast, painless read, which is a sign of both the novel’s pleasures and limitations. —Mike Reynolds