Tom Piccirilli does not write the kind of books described as "breezy."
You should know that going into his latest novella, The Walls of the Castle, which was just published by Dark Regions Press as the first book under their new Black Labyrinth imprint. Actually, you should know that before diving into any of his numerous novels, novellas or short stories. It’s not that the man doesn’t have a sense of humor; he does, but it’s as dark as midnight. It’s not that his books don’t have moments or characters or bits of dialogue that will give you a good chuckle; they do, and often, but it’s the kind of thing where you almost feel bad for finding the subject funny.
There aren’t a lot of those moments in Castle, however. This is tough subject matter, the kind of thing that many readers – me among them – might find to be the toughest subject matter of all. It’s about the grief of losing a child, and what that grief can do to a man, especially a man who had very little in his life to be proud of to begin with.
Kasteel is just such a man. That’s not his real name; that’s just what he’s calling himself right now, because right now he can’t remember his real name. Kasteel’s a con, a thief, but that wasn’t what defined him. Being a father to his son, Eddie, defined him, whether he knew it or not. But the boy is gone now, taken away by a mysterious illness that no one can seem to explain to him, and that no one was able to stop. When the story opens Eddie’s been dead and buried for over a week, but Kasteel didn’t attend the funeral. He can’t bring himself to leave the hospital where Eddie died.
That hospital is an enormous, sprawling complex known as “The Castle.” Thousands of people work there, and hundreds of thousands are treated there every year. It’s almost its own city, the kind of place where a man like Kasteel can easily fade into the background and build a strange sort of temporary life. That’s where we meet him: huddling in the emergency room, wandering the halls, stealing food from the cafeteria, and making his acquaintance with the dregs of The Castle’s cobbled-together society.
Piccirilli packs this novella with several memorable characters, an amazing amount of them, really, given the length of the piece. There’s the mother and son he meets in the ER, where the boy is being treated for an injury delivered by his abusive father. There’s Hedge, the psych patient who is convinced he’s being followed by his dead father. There’s the candy striper with the burgeoning Internet cult, and the lonely old man in ICU. All of these people, in their own way, represent a chance at redemption for Kasteel – a chance for him to take care of someone so he can make up for not being able to take care of his own son.
Kasteel is a classic Piccirilli character, a broken, grief-stricken man on a classic Piccirilli quest for redemption. In its own way, The Castle is a classic Piccirilli character as well, a mercurial entity with layers upon layers of secrets. It’s a place that may or may not be participating in the events unfolding within its walls. To Kasteel it is both a sanctuary and a kind of purgatory. To others, it is an unrelenting Hell.
I’ve reviewed many of Tom Piccirilli’s books, and I feel like I’m running out of ways to praise him. Each new book is as heartfelt and thought-provoking as the last, and every time you think that he can’t possibly come back with something as affecting and personal and ambitious as what you just read, he proves you wrong. The Walls of the Castle is no exception. I have no idea how he’s going to top it, but I have no doubt that he will.
Order The Walls of the Castle by Tom Piccirilli.
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.