The Dark, the fifth in the line of horror novellas from publisher Ravenous Shadows and editor John Skipp, seems to have a bit of an identity crisis: in some places it feels like prose that wants to be a screenplay, and in other places it feels like a screenplay that wants to be prose. Unfortunately, authors Scott Bradley and Peter Giglio never really settle the argument, resulting in an entertaining but ultimately underachieving book.
Ben Pilot is living the same Hollywood story as a lot of his peers - he's a former television star who has followed a series of bad decisions into some dark corners. He's separated from his wife and daughter, no longer has an acting job, and is instead clerking one of the last struggling video stores in Los Angeles. His ex-wife, Claire, is still learning to adjust to life without the money (and the man) she'd grown accustomed to, and their daughter Susie is adrift among the upheaval of her formerly happy life. In presenting all of this, The Dark starts out strong, with Bradley and Giglio opting for alternating chapters that present the events of this one night from Ben and Claire's respective points of view.
Just when it feels like you're settling into a straightforward domestic drama, a well-dressed man stumbles into Ben's store, mumbling strange things to himself and offering up cryptic warnings about dark and light. Across town, a nervous pizza delivery kid and a slumber party guest displaying an uncharacteristic mean streak tip off Claire that things are beginning to get a bit off-kilter. From this point on, things begin to deteriorate quickly for Ben, for Claire ... and for everybody else.
There are some intriguing concepts here, not the least of which is the idea that it's not what's in the dark that the characters have to fear - it's the dark itself. The problem is that the authors never really establish a concrete set of guidelines to help guide readers' expectations. When Ben begins his cross-town journey to get to Claire and Susie, we're led to believe that as long as he stays in the light, the Dark – and the people the Dark has touched and turned into its zombie-like familiars – can't get to him. It's a great setup, with Ben having to find creative ways to keep light on him as he travels through the night. But later on we see that some of the affected people can go in the light without apparent harm. Then there's the occasional convenient appearance of Ben's father, who for reasons barely explained appears now and then to offer Obi-Wan Kenobi-like assistance to his son.
Likewise, some of the characterizations make jarring shifts midway through the story that feel more like plot devices than organic developments. For much of the story, Claire's heart remains hardened toward Ben (and understandably so, given her side of their story); yet she almost immediately gives herself over to him when the opportunity arises. Susie is withdrawn and treated as little more than a background player throughout the bulk of the book, until the very end when she emerges as a credible threat to the Dark's undefined mission.
These things are troubling, but there are bright spots in the book as well. It's a compulsive read, and the alternating chapters provide plenty of mini-cliff-hangers to keep you going. Some of the scenes are very well done, especially Ben's attempt to escape a parking lot surrounded by people touched by the Dark. It's a scene that's full of tension, and it would make a great set piece in a film.
The Dark has put me in a tough spot as a reviewer, because there are parts of the book I can recommend without hesitation, and an almost equal number of parts that just don't click. I was entertained while reading the story, but upon putting it down the ultimate feeling was one of frustration. If it's ever adapted for film I'll be first in line; unfortunately, as a piece of prose, it narrowly misses the mark.
Buy The Dark from Ravenous Shadows.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.