Bentley Little is an author who’s been on my radar for quite some time as someone I “should” be reading, but for whatever reason never got around to. It’s with no small amount of shame that I admit this, as it’s virtually impossible to be unaware of his success in the genre or the admiration he garners from readers and writers alike. I’ve read the occasional short story of his, but had never tackled a full-length novel until now. The Influence, recently released by Cemetery Dance, will always be my first Little novel – but it definitely won’t be my last.
The Influence concerns the small town of Magdalena, an unassuming mix of ranches and farms deep in Arizona. Ross Lowry is a city boy through and through, and as unlikely a prospect to live in a place like Magdalena as you’ll find. However, a lengthy break from regular employment and an invitation from his cousin Lita and her husband Dave combine to bring him out to the desert, where he discovers a surprising affinity for life in a lower gear. Ross slowly settles into a new rhythm and seems well on the way to getting refreshed and recharged until something happens at a local New Year’s Eve party that changes things for him and for everyone in Magdalena.
Little doesn’t come right out and divulge exactly what happens at the party hosted by Cameron Holt, Magdalena’s biggest rancher – at least, not right away. But, if you’re paying attention, you’ll figure it out pretty fast. What’s harder to get hold of is what exactly the final consequences of the incident are going to be. Fortunes change for most of Magdalena’s residents, with some experiencing phenomenally good luck while their neighbors’ lives head straight for the ditch. Lotteries are won and children are lost. A fortune in gold is discovered by one resident, and a fortune in cattle is lost by several others. And at the center of it all is the thing in Cameron Holt’s smokehouse, a thing that may be rotting away… or may be transforming.
Little has some extremely bizarre, off-kilter imagery in store, but The Influence is strongly grounded in its depiction of the town and its residents, an important element that keeps the book from becoming a B-movie-style schlockfest. By the time skinned dogs begin walking on two legs and tiny humanoid creatures swim up from shower drains, you’re invested enough in the people of Magdalena that the book is less about what cool creatures Little can come up with, and more about the fate of the humans at the center of it all. That’s a tricky balance to maintain, but Little handles it like the veteran he is.
As happy as I am to have finally “discovered” Bentley Little, I’m a little angry at myself for taking this long to do so. The good thing is I feel like I’ve been given an early Christmas present, as Little has a huge back catalog of work that I now get to discover for the first time. I’ll have a better idea of how this stacks up as a “Bentley Little novel” once I’ve read his other books, but I can say it more than holds its own as a horror novel. The Influence glides effortlessly from unease and dread to outright terror, and was, for me, a hell of a good way to bring 2013 to a close.
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.