Greg F. Gifune's Kingdom of Shadows (Quick Things to Read this Halloween I)
I've liked everything I've read by Greg F. Gifune, so when Darkside Digital announced an exclusively digital novella by him for this halloween; I was thrilled. All I knew is that it had a scarecrow on the cover (see right). You can browse the "Kingdom of Shadows" product page at The Horror Mall for more information. It is only $4.95 and comes in three formats (you do have to pick the format at purchase, rather than a Fictionwise-like MultiFormat approach). A rather pretty PDF that can be read on anything that accepts PDFs; a MOBI version that works fine on the Kindle, though has a couple of line-space glitches (nothing major at all) and seems to be lacking a proper table of contents feature; and an EPUB, which is a more open, general format though I have not gotten to try it out for this book. If you can sit down and dedicate time to it, it should not take you more than an hour or two to finish.
The storyline follows a group of criminals on the night a robbery goes bad. One of their fellows is dying at the beginning, and the others have had to kill some guards in the process. They pull up to an old, foggy farmhouse and get ready to split the loot, though they cannot help but notice the scarecrows in the front yard. Then, the story jumps to just Rooster, who wakes up from a nightmare (about that night) sometime later. Life, for him, has one bright spot: his beautiful lover Gaby. The city around him is dying, work is hard to find, and in proper Gifune fashion, the entire landscape is peppered with cold rains, rusty buildings, and broken dreams.
As the novella progresses, we go back and forth from the night at the farmhouse to the present, and as we learn more and more about what happened, the facts get murkier and more terrifying. We see weird growths as a glimpse in the bathroom. Past victims approach us on the street. A job opportunity leads us to a dark, cold warehouse with something moving at the edge of the light. Strange, dark cars follow us around, but never too close. Then, in a flash, we have a memory of something horrible happening in the farmhouse, of doing something inhuman to someone else, with gore and delight rolled in together.
Gifune's gift is the ability to lay down a thick coat of creepiness in the rhythm of his words. Had the man wrote a novella about a couple of kids going to the park, you would feel just how freaky that merry-go-round really is, especially since its rusty and there's a fine mist going on. I sound almost like I am making light, but I promise I am not. He knows how to bring the tone to his stories, the storyline is almost secondary.
Speaking of the storyline, the biggest obvious influence on the novella is Jacob's Ladder (the movie, not the Biblical image), but there are shoutouts to Event Horizon, In the Mouth of Madness, and Angel Heart as well. It is hard to measure how derivative horror really is, since most of the best fears are already the old ones; but if you are the kind that demands absolutely originality in any piece, the shout-outs and allusions might be too much. Personally, I find Gifune's careful blending of old and new tropes to be fascinating, because that is when horror is the best for me: a fan recognizing the greats while also crafting something solid, himself.
The end result is just about as up in the air as you can be and still declare the ending fairly solid. Questions still shout from the rooftops but at least you feel like the story has gotten itself up to a relative degree of balance. All the better to collapse about everyone's head just as soon as as you put it down, I suppose. The not-completely-fleshed-out character of the ending gave it a bit of a punch, in my opinion, because how else can you end a story like this? It sticks to your ribs, so to speak. A solid story with an artisan ending; overall a worthy expenditure of $4.95.
I'll rate this somewhere between Good and Great, and heavily recommend it for Halloween.
Si Vales, Valeo