Just start at the beginning, and the rest will take care of itself.
Brian James Freeman’s fascinating novella, The Painted Darkness, is one of those rare gems you sometimes find in fiction that manage to effortlessly capture the strangeness of being young. Freeman’s five-year-old, Henry, immediately calls to mind any number of Stephen King’s fictional children, notably Danny Torrence in The Shining or the Loser’s Club in It. But there’s more than a hint of Ray Bradbury in The Painted Darkness – both Dandelion Wine and the darker Halloween Tree seem like inspirations, as does the Robert McCammon pastiche, Boy’s Life. Like the best of homages, though, young Henry’s story moves far beyond imitation, becoming a wholly unique creation under Freeman’s assured pen.
The Painted Darkness concerns itself with classic themes: letting go of childhood, the power with which we wield creativity, and the tricky nature of monsters. The novella is structured so that we simultaneously experience young Henry’s childhood snow-day adventure in the woods and his adult self’s horrific experiences in his isolated farmhouse during a snowstorm. Young Henry’s chapters are titled “The Birth of the Artist,” indicating that Henry’s childhood horrors plant the seeds for the painter he will become in later life. Indeed, one of the book’s recurring mantras is, “Henry paints against the darkness.” But that’s a slippery truth; early on in the novella, Henry’s father tells him, “the monsters don’t live in the dark corners waiting to pounce on us. They live deep in our own heart.”
This declaration takes on weight throughout A Painted Darkness, as we simultaneously grow to understand Henry and to fear for him. We question whether the monsters are real or in Henry’s head; we wonder that, if they are real, have they come from Henry? Is his art simply in canvas, or does it edge into the real world? “Henry paints against the darkness” seems in direct contradiction to the title, A Painted Darkness, setting up so many delicious interpretations. In fact, Henry’s father tells him, “Just start at the beginning, and the rest will take care of itself,” but the story itself doesn’t start at the beginning. The mysteries of our protagonist are vast, and exciting to explore.
However many questions are left unanswered, The Painted Darkness achieves its two goals: (1) we care about Henry in both eras, and (2) this story is really scary. The new audiobook version of the book, read by Alexander MacDonald, underscores both aspects. At the start, MacDonald’s somewhat hurried monotone seems to regard the story dispassionately; unlike audio readers such as George Guidall and the late Frank Muller, MacDonald seems unwilling to engage with Freeman’s novella. However, this turns out to be a deliberate storytelling device, on the order of Wayne June’s reading of Jack Ketchum’s Hide and Seek. MacDonald comes alive when the story calls for onomatopoeia. On the page, Freeman’s thump-thump-thump of the boiler in adult Henry’s basement is scary enough; on audio, it’s downright menacing, with drawn out syllables and a deeper timbre. As The Painted Darkness’s fragile truce with reality begins to break down, MacDonald responds at once to the change, escalating the pace of the story and breathlessly narrating the dual climax.
Because Freeman handles the two timelines well in the book – past tense for young Henry, present tense for adult Henry – we never get lost on the audio (as it is possible to do in Steven Weber’s recording of Stephen King’s It, for instance … though, as with the book, that may be intentional). Freeman’s straightforward storytelling style helps on the page, given the many questions raised about Henry’s abilities and perceptions; on the audiobook, such clarity is vital, allowing listeners to wrestle with the story’s implications, rather than the story itself.
The Painted Darkness is a rewarding, fun, scary read; it may be an even better listen. While Freeman has been publishing books since 2004’s Black Fire, The Painted Darkness is his first work on audio. If this production is any indication, he and the format have an interesting and thrilling future together.
You can order The Painted Darkness on audio, eBook, paperback, and hardcover on Brian James Freeman’s site.
Kevin Quigley is an author whose website, CharnelHouseSK.com, is one of the leading online sources for Stephen King news, reviews, and information. He has written several books on Stephen King for Cemetery Dance Publications, including Chart of Darkness, Blood In Your Ears, and the upcoming Stephen King Limited. His first novel, I’m On Fire, is forthcoming.