Black Bottle Man by Craig Russell
Great Plains Teen Fiction (February 2012)
176 pages, $9.99 e-book
Reviewed by Joshua Gage
Black Bottle Man is a young-adult horror story based around the traditional “deal with the devil” plot. Russell, however, makes the plot seem fresh with his historical take. He also twists the traditional roles of the devil’s bargain into a unique novel which is sure to entertain audiences.
The novel’s main character is Rembrandt, a ninety-year old man who has thirty days left in his life to find a champion to fight the devil. He earned this task on a family farm in the Midwest in the 1920’s when his two aunts, desperate for children of their own, made a pact with a demonic bottle of ink. Having sold their souls for children, they owed the devil—the Black Bottle Man—something for their bargain.
Instead, Rembrandt, his father, and his uncle Thompson offer to find a champion who will be strong enough to fight the devil in order to absolve the two women. There are, of course, conditions. The men cannot stay any place for more than two weeks. They can offer up as many champions as they want, but every champion’s soul gets added to the pot. Also, this quest will continue until Rembrandt lives four-score and ten years and, his father tacks on quickly, thirty days more.
The other major character in the novel is Gail. Gail is a former teacher who was caught up in a terrible series of life events. One day, while she was playing a classical composition which she wrote for her students, a man named Andy Moore came into the classroom and took her and her students hostage. Instead of letting the police shoot him, Gail warned Andy that the police were there, which resulted in not only his death, but the death of four children. Gail went into a coma, and when she awoke she wasn’t the same person. As a form of penance, she becomes homeless, living on the streets off the scraps and kindness of strangers and the attempts of her family to save her. She follows daily rituals of protection, but needs some way to redeem her soul.
Craig Russell writes a very provocative tale with lots of twists and turns that will keep the audience interested. The two parallel storylines work well against each other, culminating in a very interesting, but somewhat unexpected, finish. His use of history, especially with the scenes of Rembrandt surviving the Great Depression and other historical events, make for interesting reading and really help to develop his character.
Furthermore, his search for a champion, and all the failed champions he tries to use, add suspense to the story. While some readers might find the writing a bit too simplistic, and the plot a bit too obvious, if one takes into consideration that this is a novel geared for young adults, they will be entertained and engaged by the story. Overall, Black Bottle Man is a quick read and a very entertaining novel. Horror readers, especially those interested in traditional, folkloric devil stories, are sure to enjoy.