Reviews for Children of the Dark, the new novel from Jonathan Janz via Sinister Grin Press, have been flowing freely for the last couple of weeks, and if I’ve seen one reference to Stephen King’s “The Body” or Robert McCammon’s Boy’s Life, I’ve seen a dozen. Each time I’d think, if I was Jonathan Janz I might ask people to ease back on that, because…talk about setting expectations on “High.”
Then I dug into the book itself and, well, I can see where those other reviewers are coming from. With its deadly accurate recall of what it’s like to be a misfit youth growing up in a world that seems to be set against you, it does indeed bring those stories to mind – not to mention (thanks to some scenes of pure, unrelenting terror) King’s massive, magnificent novel IT.
Our narrator and gateway into the book is 15-year-old Will Burgess, a young man who exemplifies the saying “the deck is stacked against him.” Absentee father, drugged-up mother, anger management issues, a six-year-old sister he’s basically raising on his own…he’s got more to deal with than anyone his age should. Layered on top of these issues are the normal burdens any adolescent male has to bear: self-doubt and insecurity and girls, girls, girls. That’s not to say he doesn’t have a few advantages; he’s an ace on the baseball field, as is his good friend Chris; he’s got another pal, Barley, that he’s been close to for years; and here lately he’s been getting a good bit of attention from a pretty girl named Mia.
Janz spends most of the first half of the book establishing the bond between Will, Chris and Barley; their burgeoning relationships with Mia and her friend Rebecca; and the rivalry with on- and off-field antagonists Kurt Fisher and Brad Ralston. While all that simmers he’s carefully laying the groundwork for the explosive second half of the novel: the escape of the notorious “Moonlight Killer,” Carl Padgett; the ineptitude of the local police force; and sightings of weird, white-faced creatures in the woods. I realize some of those elements could be familiar enough to approach clichè, but Janz’s careful approach yields plenty of fresh (and, in the case of the police force, pleasantly surprising) results.
I love the way Janz allows the book to build slowly, giving us plenty of time to spend in the world, and with these characters; it’s what makes the payoff of the second half so brutal and memorable. By the time Padgett appears, full of murderous intent and devastating secrets, and by the time the threat lurking in the woods makes itself know, we’re fully invested in the fate of Will, his family and his friends. Like King and McCammon, Janz knows that horror is most effective when the people in peril are people we’ve come to care about, and that’s what he gives us with Will and his group.
Children of the Dark is a prequel to Janz’s 2013 book Savage Species (a book I haven’t read yet, but will be seeking out soon). If the closing chapter of Children is any indication, Janz is not quite through with this story. Likewise, if the quality of this book is any indication, I don’t think I’m through reading stories by Jonathan Janz. This is a breakthrough book by an author with immense talent, and the horror genre is going to benefit from his presence for years to come.