A Horrorble Review
I don’t normally write negative reviews. In fact, this is my first. What spurred this was not necessarily the quality of the book itself, but the fact that I felt so many of the positive reviews were simply misleading. I bought this book on a recommendation from a horror book Facebook page I follow. Several people had mentioned how good it was, how scary, and I’m always looking for something terrifying. There is far too much bad horror out there these days. This book, Warm, Dark Places, by Mike Duke, unfortunately, is no exception.
First, the book is not a novella, as the author claims in the afterword; it’s a short story. Yes, it’s eighty-two pages long, but that’s only because it’s double-spaced with extra spacing both before and after paragraphs. I understand that the author seems to have published this himself, but to call this book a novella is incredibly misleading. The book, if it were published by a credible publishing house might be twenty-five or thirty pages.
The book is physically difficult to read. Visually, this looks like an essay students produce in high-school or college: MLA formatting: twelve-point font: double-spaced: etc. It’s frustrating to read eighty pages of that. It’s also means you have to read much more slowly because the lines are further apart, forcing your eyes to move further than they would when reading a novel in standard format. Additionally, this means spending more time reading a book that is not very good to begin with. But just because a book is formatted differently doesn’t mean it’s bad. There’s so much more.
Early in the novel there is a five-page sex scene that seems to have been written by Michael Scott. It’s both hilarious and painful to read. And in the spirit of The Office, it’s one of those scenes that makes those watching/reading uncomfortable. Here’s a couple of my favorite quotes from that part: “My lady, prepare to have your hindquarters chastised for this insolent struggle against your rightful master. Hah!”. And this: “You sir, are over-confident and unworthy of my deliciously moist nether-victuals”. Five pages of that for your reading pleasure. In a subsequent scene, Jess has a centipede the size of Carl’s forearm crawl into her vagina, and Carl spends several agonizing paragraphs fretting about how to get it out before shouting, nay, “exclaim[ing] in utter excitement”, “A douche! A douche!” Of course, in a horror story trying to gross us out, the thing to do is not grab the beast by the head and rip it out inch, by creeping, crawling, scaly inch, but spend five minutes fretting over and worrying about the whereabouts of your girlfriend’s strawberry douches. Like Michael Scott’s humor, these scenes simply miss their mark.
The characters tend to be flat as well. There are kids in the book who at first seem to be around ten, or maybe eleven years old—though we are never told, only left to guess. In one scene they’re burning cockroaches they’ve nailed to a wall with a lighter, and in the next they’re master negotiators bargaining with Carl for lighters and cans of hairspray to create blow torches. I’m not sure how old kids are when they move beyond killing bugs with magnifying glasses and lighters, but I do know that whatever age they are, they aren’t that sophisticated. So, when Derek (the supposed prepubescent tween) says to Carl, “Yeah, actually killed … but, ultimately, that’s not important to your current dilemma. Anyway, the victim, slash tenant, was this middle-aged Asian guy who went by the name of Kenneth Wong. Weird, nerdy type and a real recluse”– fairly sophisticated dialogue for a kid whose greatest pleasure in life is burning bugs with a lighter and a can of hairspray–readers can understandably be forgiven for insuating that the characters have, well… no character.
Finally, there are the reviews. All the reviews on the back cover are either from Amazon reviewers or bloggers. Now again, this doesn’t necessarily mean that a book will be bad. It could be that an author has yet to be discovered, trying to make it on their own. I’m all for that, especially today in a market that is entirely overcrowded. However, this fact, in addition to the items above, should be a caution to readers to take the glowing reviews on Amazon with a grain of salt.
Maybe I’m being hypercritical; maybe I’m comparing an indie author with the likes of Horror legends such as Barker, Straub, King, etc.; maybe that’s unfair, and I will readily accede to that point. However, this short story, even as a stand-alone, is, at best, okay. It’s more funny than scary. Although, according to the author, he wrote this because he was constantly hearing people complain about how nothing scares them anymore. Too true, and I sympathize with that sentiment. That is, in fact, the reason I bought this book. Nevertheless, in aiming for the amygdala (the fear center of the brain), Duke misses, and hits us in the humerus.