If you think the premise of Nate Southard’s novel Lights Out – vampires invade a maximum security prison – is little more than an excuse to stage a giant, bloody brawl, it’s a forgivable assumption. Fortunately, Southard had a little more on his mind when he set out to write the book. It’s not “Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption,” mind you, but it’s a far cry from Jason vs. Freddy.
How so? Well, for one thing, Southard has stocked the cupboard with a handful of believable, even relatable characters, people that you can root for (or against) when the plasma hits the fan. To be honest, I wasn’t sure he was going to pull this off at first. After a claustrophobic opening which introduces Southard’s version of vampires, the horrific elements slide into the background while we get to know the people who will soon be fighting for their lives. Burnham State Maximum Security Prison is populated by gang bangers, Sicilian mobsters, Aryans, and Latino thugs, and every one of them is strolling around with a giant chip on their shoulder. The amount of posturing and trash-talking that takes place is nearly overwhelming, and I was worried that the stereotypes were getting out of hand. But Southard quickly reminds you that all of these guys are putting up a front for a reason: survival. Show even a glimmer of weakness and you’re done, a fact that is especially true for those holding a position of power (such as it is) in the prison caste system. The almost theatrical swagger and prosaic tough talk these guys practice is a sort of camouflage, a technique they use to keep themselves alive.
Of course, all the strutting and swearing in the world doesn’t mean a thing to a bloodthirsty creature that’s been sealed in an underground cavern for an untold number of years. When two Andy Dufresne-wannabees attempt to tunnel out of Burnham, they stumble across something that should have remained undisturbed. It’s not long before people are disappearing, only to reappear later, transformed and violently thirsty. Southard’s vampires carry some of the creature’s historical weaknesses (wooden stakes, holy water) but none of its charm. They are not interested in seducing and slowly bleeding nubile young women; they are not dashing or hypnotic or sensual. They simply want to decimate and drain as many living humans as possible.
Southard maintains an even pace up until the final third of the book. That’s when the gloves come off and the premise pays off. The prison is on lockdown, the staff pastor has developed an insane battle plan, and the population’s various warring factions are ready to put aside their differences in a shaky truce in the hopes they can live to see one more day. It’s a buildup that demands plenty of action, and Southard absolutely does not disappoint. There’s just enough of the battle to keep it from becoming redundant, capped off with the kind of denouement that every horror fan worth his or her salt will be expecting.
Lights Out is not a quiet meditation on hope, and it’s not a paper-thin slugfest between man and monster. It manages to hit that sweet spot between the two; a well-written and engaging story with a bucket of blood on the side. It’s out now in paperback from Deadite Press, and it’s well worth your time.