For some reason, small towns are frequent targets for horror writers. I’ve lost track of all the small towns that have been invaded, possessed, overrun, decimated, burned or otherwise leveled in the hundreds of horror novels I’ve read over the years. One of the most famous examples belongs to Stephen King, who built a little hamlet called Castle Rock from the ground up over a number of years (and books) before wiping it off the map in Needful Things. Plenty of his peers have gleefully wreaked similar havoc.
James Newman didn’t give his creation, a small North Carolina town called Morganville, very long in the spotlight. He introduces it in the opening pages of his novel The Wicked (newly revised and out now in paperback from Shock Totem) as the site of a tragic fire that consumed the Heller Home for Children – along with most of its inhabitants. A thing like that would be enough to bring many such close-knit communities to their knees, but it’s only the first in a string of atrocities Newman has planned.
The book revolves around a young couple, David and Kate Little. They have a seven-year-old daughter, Becca, and another child on the way. Kate’s pregnancy is one wedge that is slowly pushing the couple apart; the child was conceived under horrific circumstances, and the incident is what drove the family from David’s beloved New York City down to North Carolina. The other wedge is David’s attitude, which veers from petty at times to downright selfish at others. This attitude makes it difficult to sympathize with David as the book progresses.
The Littles hit town shortly after the tragedy at the Heller Home, and their first night in their new home is marred by the suicide of a neighbor. It quickly becomes apparent that the site of the Heller Home is Ground Zero for the evil that has set its sights on Morganville. The manifestation of that evil – a being called Moloch – is Newman’s finest achievement here; a shadowy, demonic figure, a remorseless puppet master that employs possession, visions, nightmares and spirits to advance toward its endgame.
Newman should also be credited for the novel’s strong supporting cast, especially George Heatherly, a tough-as-nails ex-Marine who helps David take the fight to Moloch, and Sam Guice, Morganville’s beleaguered sheriff, a good man who is unable to stop the town he loves from descending into chaos and death.
Newman infuses The Wicked with a mix of visceral B-movie shocks (think oversized, venomous insects and gruesome groin injuries) and quieter moments that are genuinely creepy and unsettling. These tonal shifts happen smoothly, and rather than divide the book into unequal halves they meld it into a unique, satisfying whole. The book’s climax does abandon the quieter aspects for all-out action, and while I might have preferred those quieter moments, the final assault on Moloch is undeniably entertaining and exciting, bringing the book to a powerful close.
The Wicked is a big, fun throwback to the kind of everything-but-the-kitchen-sink approach to horror fiction that dominated the shelves in the 1980s, the decade Newman references in his afterword as a major influence on this novel. It’s a brash, in-your-face read, and definitely worth tracking down.
Order The Wicked by James Newman. 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.