Thursday, June 23, 2011

Review: Bloodstone, by Nate Kenyon

I found this book on my bookshelf one day a while back. It was in with the unread books (I sort books into two groups, read and unread) but I couldn't remember when I bought it. In fact, not only could I not remember when I bought it, I also couldn't remember where or why. I don't think I bought it based on the back cover blurb; I suspect that I must have read a slightly more detailed synopsis, saw the word "zombies", and decided to pick it up and only just now got back to it.

Having finished it, I don't feel too bad about not getting to it right away. It's not a bad book by any stretch; I've read far worse novels by far more experienced authors. (This is Nate Kenyon's first book.) But it is what it is, a first novel by someone who hasn't yet stepped out of the shadow of his idols Stephen King and Peter Straub to find his own voice as a writer. While I suspect that Kenyon might have some good books ahead of him, maybe even some genuinely great ones, this is the work of a fledgling writer who's still sorting things out.

One of the big things that he needs to sort out is who he is. Right now, this feels like a painter trying to forge the work of an Old Master; the touches are all King, but the inspiration that guides the work is clearly that of someone of lesser skill. A clarifying disclaimer: I'm obviously not saying that Kenyon is plagarizing King, merely that he uses many of King's stylistic touches. There's a Christine-like social outcast who falls under the domineering influence of a possessing ghost, a Shining-esque sequence where a character is tempted to drink by ghosts in a bar that inexplicably appears the way it did where it was new, and one of the death scenes of a minor character feels like it fell out of Salem's Lot and the vampires turned to zombies when it hit the ground. Even the opening sequence, which is attention-grabbing and clever, has more than a little similarity to the opening of Peter Straub's Ghost Story.

And the similarities make the weaknesses of the story compared to King or Straub's work that much more apparent. It's an "ancient evil comes back to haunt small town in Maine" tale (it's not Kenyon's fault that he lives in the same part of the country as King, but it is unfortunate...) But Kenyon hasn't yet learned how to write on the kind of grand tapestry this sort of story requires, where the small New England town becomes a world in microcosm and the intensity builds as the novel moves towards a climax. There's plenty of atmosphere, but nothing actually happens until about page 280 of a 33o-page novel. It's as if Stephen King had to cut IT down to fit the publisher's requirements, and so he took out all the monster attacks and all of the town history sequences.

Despite all this, as I say, the novel is not without promise. The prose flows well, and is not marred by any of the clumsy cliches that plague the horror genre. The zombies and supernatural elements, while underused, aren't bad (although again, too reminiscent of King.) The characters are sympathetic and well-drawn, and there are some interesting choices in their backstory and the dynamic between them. This is a novel that you could maybe look back on and see the potential in...but I don't know if it's worth reading for its own sake.

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