June 8, 2009

Book Review: "Phantom Nights" by John Farris

Title: Phantom Nights
Author: John Farris
Publisher: TOR Books
Published: February 2005
Pages: 323
Genre: Horror

Set in a small town in Tennessee called Evening Shade during the early '50s, Alex Gambier is fourteen-years-old and filled with rebellion and angst. A major hindrance in expressing this is the fact that he's mute, due to the after-effects of a childhood case of diphtheria. Two ways he gets by is writing imaginative, dark stories ... and pulling hair-brained stunts that put his own life at risk. His latest stunt of dodging a train ends up being his introduction to a new friend in a black nurse named Mally Shaw.

Their friendship is short lived, however, as she is raped, abducted, and murdered by a prominent local politician, Leland Howard, who believes she carries the secret to his ill-gotten success. Alex witnesses the rape and abduction, and tries to get the help of his older brother who is also the interim sheriff. Help comes in short supply though, when the mother of Alex's sister-in-law moves into the house and drives a wedge between them all.

John Farris is a prolific horror writer I'm told. But, after reading this novel, I'm not yet convinced. It's my first sampling of his work and I am underwhelmed. What should have been a very suspenseful tale about a disadvantaged teen turns out to be a plodding series of events with vicarious connections and meaning, at best.

Each scene, being what it is, is written well--I won't deny Farris' talent at bringing a moment to life with his wordsmithing. But, so much of the action has no real bearing on the story as a whole. The whole "meddling old maid" that is Alex's mother-in-law serves no more purpose than to get Alex away from his home to witness the rape, and to further demonstrate the old woman's timely intolerance to black people or anyone aside from her own daughter and grandson. Alex's brother may be an effective deputy serving as sheriff, but you wouldn't know it from this story because he takes his sweet-Jesus time doing anything but play chauffeur to Mally Shaw's estranged father (a retired forensics specialist who shows up to investigate his daughter's death, and basically solves the whole case), not that it matters since it's only more subplot to fill up an otherwise empty tale.

This novel was probably the least horrific and the least suspenseful story I've read in some time. At least, in terms of novels categorized as horror. It wasn't terrible by any stretch, but it was just ... boring. I didn't even get into the supernatural element--the one thing that plays directly into the climax of the story--because it comes across as out of place with all of the racial tension, familial angst, and circa-1950's procedural police work. Mally Shaw is stuck in an underworld of ghosts, which seems to be connected to Alex's desire to have her stay with him. But, her role is minimal until the very end, and she is probably the only sympathetic character of the bunch.

I am going to search out more of Farris' work in hopes of discovering why so many herald him as a great talent. He's got the talent to tell a story, to be sure, but I was hoping to read one that genuinely interested me. And this wasn't it. I can't say I could recommend this novel to anyone, but I don't want to discourage anyone from reading Farris' work. I haven't been discouraged.

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