As I’ve written this series, I’ve found it necessary to achieve a tenuous balance in my recommendations and recountings of the horror which has impacted me as a reader and writer. I’ve bounced a lot between the descriptions “fun and fast-paced” and “literate and full of substance.” The truth of the matter (as I’ve come to discover it) is this: good fiction and, even more importantly, a good reading diet, shouldn’t ever cater to one end of the spectrum exclusively. Stories should move us emotionally, they should make us ponder the world around us, our existence, and life in general. They should say something about the human condition.
However, they should also be fun, exciting, entertaining, and suspenseful. Fiction should provide us with some sort of temporary escape from our lives. I saw an interview once in which Stephen King said the highest compliment he could be paid would be that his fiction made someone late for work, or made them burn dinner, or fall behind on the laundry, simply because they couldn’t stop reading it.
It’s important to note that everything I say should be taken with a grain of salt, too. Maybe a truckload. There are far wiser folks out there who have read more horror than I have; who have read more fiction than I have, period. I’m by no means an expert, nor can I point to a long or distinguished writing career to buttress my credibility. I just love to read, and I know that what moves me is hardly ever just one kind of story, and the same goes for the type of fiction which has impacted me as a writer.
In any case, it seems very appropriate for me to offer a series which has impacted me greatly, a saga which offers the best of both worlds: excitement, suspense, and substance, by the truckload: The Repairman Jack Saga, courtesy of F. Paul Wilson.
When I met Paul at my first stint at Borderlands Press Writers Bootcamp, he—like so many other authors at that time—was just a name I’d heard, usually in this context: “Have you read The Repairman Jack novels, by F. Paul Wilson?” I even had a Repairman Jack novel at home, (Gateways, I think), which I’d randomly ordered off Amazon after someone had once again asked me that question. But, as I saw it was several books down in the series, I shelved it and sort of forgot about it for a few years.
Until I attended Boot Camp. Until I experienced first-hand his instruction and knowledge. The questions he asked me about plot and character made me re-write a story, which led to selling it to an installment in the Horror Library anthology series, which was a milestone for me. Of course I was going to go out and read him!
Subsequently, he became the first author I ever binge-purchased off Amazon, and because I had come to Repairman Jack fairly late, I was able to read every single Jack novel, one right after the other. It still stands as one of my most enjoyable reading experiences ever, one I’m pretty sure I’ll undertake again soon, now that I own them all.
What initially intrigued me was Paul’s off-hand comment in one of the Borderlands sessions that he lucked out in his creation of Jack, because each book could be just about any genre—the center of which revolved around a character he could continue to refine and develop. I thought the idea genius, because the way Paul explained it, one novel could be a ghost story, another more science fiction, another a heist novel…it didn’t matter. Each novel’s genre depended on the adventure Jack was having at the time.
The first two Paul Wilson novels I read were The Keep and The Tomb. I don’t exactly remember when I read them, because on my Goodreads account, it says I added them both on October 23rd, 2010. That’s right about the time I really started using Goodreads, so I was probably adding all the books I’d recently read. By my best recollection, however, I believe I read The Tomb June of 2010, and The Keep sometime in July, 2010. The best part? Because I went into to Repairman Jack cold, I had no idea both novels belonged to the same epic saga.
All I knew was that I’d found an amazing new author who had left me spellbound with two completely different horror novels, and The Tomb offered more than just a horror novel. It offered a titular character I desperately wanted more of.
I’ve always been a sucker for character-oriented series. For a time, I was gleefully obsessed with the adventures of Roland of Gilead (The Dark Tower—King), and at the time I discovered Repairman Jack, my character of choice was Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden (whom I dropped like a bad habit when I discovered Jack. Sorry, Harry. I’ll get back to you, someday. Promise.).
As I chugged through Repairman Jack like a junkie who’d discovered a brand-new fix, I couldn’t believe it (again, I purposely went in cold, not wanting to know anything about Jack and his series), when I discovered all the seemingly-stand-alone novels which tied into Jack’s saga. The Black Wind, which is possibly the most powerful and moving World War II story I’ve ever read. The Touch, about a man who could heal with just a touch, and the terrible price it extracted. And the Adversary Series, which begins with The Keep—a wonderful twist on the classic “vampire” story—and is followed up by Reborn, and the awful and terrible Reprisal. Those three works stand as some of the finest horror I’ve ever read, haunting in its depiction of an ancient evil whose reach cannot be escaped.
Have I convinced you, yet? Okay. I’ll talk some more about Jack. I don’t mind, trust me.
The initial backstory I encountered went like this: Jack (just Jack, no last name, no overt description, just a regular, average-looking guy you couldn’t pick out of a crowd) is a mercenary living in New York. He’s picked up the moniker “Repairman Jack” because he fixes things. Mostly situations, but sometimes people. If you’ve seen the ending of Denzel Washington’s The Equalizer—in which Denzel’s character receives an email asking him for help, because he has a “specific set of skills” (sorry, I couldn’t help myself), then you’ve got the idea.
The thing is, however: Jack is just a guy. He’s got no military training. No Special Ops, Black Bag background. He’s not a trained killer from the Marines. Hasn’t studied any ancient secret martial arts in a secluded dojo somewhere in the Far East. He’s just a guy who wants to stay completely off-the-grid, completely invisible, and has taught himself how to use guns, how to fight, how to…fix things. Why? Because he learned from a mentor (as told in a novel from The Early Years) that there were simply “some things I cannot abide in my sight.”
I immediately found that refreshing, and it also pointed out a big flaw in lots of my characters at the time; and the characters I always seemed to read about. They were always ex-cops, ex-Marines, ex-FBI agents, ex-whatevers “with a dark, troubled past.” Jack wasn’t any of these things. He’d simply learned over time a specific set of skills (sorry not sorry), and had also decided he could help people in ways the police never could. And what was wrong with getting paid for doing so?
In the beginning, Jack isn’t troubled at all, really. He’s got a great (if a little risky) freelance job. Doesn’t pay taxes. Is into old movies and cool retro knickknacks. His studio apartment looks like the blast-site of a Nostalgic and Oddities Bomb. He’s got a girlfriend Gia, and her daughter, Vicky, has very much become his daughter. Honestly, probably one of the biggest reasons I plugged into Jack’s story? He was a hero I could root for. The jaded, scarred anti-hero can be a powerful storytelling tool, and, as I mentioned in my last column about Robert Dunbar’s The Pines, we need stories which throw an unflattering light on our human flaws and weaknesses. We do need to see misery. However, we need heroes like Jack just as badly.
As I mentioned earlier, one of the big draws was Paul’s assertion that Repairman Jack had such wide appeal because each novel could be whatever genre the story asked of it. This is so true. The Tomb is a wonderful—and, at turns, terrifying—horror novel. However, the next novel in the series, Legacy, is more of a techno-thriller, suspense novel. The following novel, Conspiracies, isn’t exactly a science fiction novel, but it travels around the edge of it. Further down the line, The Haunted Air delivers itself as a ghost story.
In a larger sense, however, The Repairman Jack Saga is one of the best, most modern and original “Lovecraftian Horror/Adventure” series I’ve ever read. How so? Eventually, (it starts getting hinted at in Conspiracies), Jack finds himself drawn into a cosmic conflict between two opposing forces: an evil force which wishes us nothing but destruction and pain, and an ambivalent neutral force which doesn’t really care about humans, so much—it just views Earth as a minor pawn in a Cosmic Battle which they’d rather not lose; but if they do, they’ll just pack up their bags and move on. No skin off their nose.
And this is how The Keep, Reborn, and Reprisal tie in. They regale the rise of Jack’s eventual nemesis, the Adversary, in three startlingly visceral and emotionally crushing horror novels, as well as give the background for this cosmic conflict, which finds its roots in the Secret History of the World—an unrecorded history which began on this planet eons before any myth or religion. There is a Chosen One, someone gifted by the ambivalent power opposing the evil forces—the Ally—and that’s the link which ties Jack in: as his adventures continue, it becomes very obvious that because Earth’s original guardian is long past his quest, Jack is slated to become Earth’s new guardian, whether he wants to or not.
This is where the series becomes more and more horrific as it goes. The Ally doesn’t really care about us. Earth is just some real estate it’d rather not lose. So being Chosen by them to be Earth’s champion isn’t exactly a reward. It’s more of a curse, because the Ally just wants Jack as a weapon. “A spear can have no branches.” It may offer the power to defend Earth against the Adversary, but to the Ally, Jack is a tool, nothing more. It will do whatever It needs to obtain its aims. It will use Jack however it needs to, and cares nothing for the pain it inflicts along the way. Jack’s condition becomes ever more existential, and, in a way, he a powerful cipher for all of us who believe in a Higher Power, but often question Its priorities and aims, and the pain It allows to occur.
Like The Dark Tower series, several of Paul’s seemingly standalone novels tie into the saga’s arc. The Touch is about where the guardian’s power goes when he relinquishes his quest to protect Earth (because he believes he defeats the Advesary in The Keep), as it “curses” people with the ability to heal at a touch, while exacting a heavy price. Perhaps his finest work, Black Wind, a moving World War II novel, provides the background story for what eventually is the Repairman Jack novel, By the Sword.
It would be impossible for me to break down all of these novels and their tie-in short stories and novellas, so I’ll end on a few final notes. First, fiction is one of the best vehicles for transmitting ideals and values. Look at parables, fables, myths, legends, the Twilight Zone, and so many other mediums in which fiction was used to transmit a writer’s beliefs and values. Sometimes, it can get heavy-handed, when those ideals become more important than good storytelling. F. Paul Wilson is not afraid to let his fiction speak about all the things he’s trouble about—bloodshed because of religious dogma, blind faith leading to believers committing atrocities, over-controlling government, and much more—but he never lets that become more important than telling a compelling story. He uses those elements, instead.
For example, I did find the cosmic “good” which rises to aide Jack fascinating: The physical-embodiment of humanity’s will and collective consciousness. A few years ago, in a column for Lamplight Magazine, I addressed the topic of “faith-driven horror” and I cited this is as a perfect example of faith-driven horror fiction not driven by a religious ideology, but rather by an author’s belief in/desire for the collective power of humanity as a force for good. Again, however—it’s a part of the story, and not the reason for it.
Another note: Paul’s prose is as tight, economical, and as purposeful as Jack himself. And, I love his utilization of point-of-view, which reflects the personalities of all his characters to a T. Again, some folks don’t like this sort of thing. I love it. In fact, it’s why I decided to abandon Harry Dresden for Jack (again, sorry, Harry), because I’d tired of one perspective. I wanted multiple perspectives, and I wanted those perspectives to sound like the characters they were attached to, slang and all.
A final note: it would be best to buy the most recent editions of these novels. In many ways, Jack’s saga took F. Paul Wilson by surprise: he wrote The Keep, Reborn, Reprisal, and The Tomb, and, as he stated in an interview somewhere (I can’t remember where), he was content with Jack’s end in The Tomb. He was taken aback by readers clamoring for more of him. So when he continued the series and developed his Cosmic Battle, newer editions were released which smoothed over some continuity bumps created by the unexpected birth of Jack’s further adventures. Those continuity bumps didn’t bother me at all, (those things rarely do), but if that sort of thing does tend to nag you as a reader, get all the newest editions of the novels.
Dig into The Repairman Jack saga today. But block out the whole summer and devote it to reading, and maybe tell your loved ones you won’t see them for awhile. Reading these books back to back can be addictive…
- The Secret History of the World
- Young Repairman Jack
- Repairman Jack: The Early Years
- The Adversary Cycle
- The Repairman Jack Saga
- Black Wind
- Quick Fixes
- The Peabody- Ozymandias Traveling Circus & Oddity Emporium
Kevin Lucia is the Reviews Editor for Cemetery Dance. His short fiction has appeared in several anthologies. His first short story collection, Things Slip Through, was published November 2013, and his most recent short story collection, Things You Need, was released September, 2018. He’s currently working on his first novel. For free monthly fiction, book reviews, YouTube commentaries, and three free ebooks, visit www.kevinlucia.blogspot.com and sign up for his monthly email newsletter.