I read for a lot of reasons, not the least of which is to learn how other writers work their magic. But if I were to divorce the writer part of me from the reader part of me—something I could never completely do in a non-hypothetical world—I’d say that there are three things I want from a story:
It should make me think.
It should make me feel.
It should entertain me.
The above demands aren’t necessarily listed in order, nor are they isolated circles on a Venn diagram. No, they’d overlap and crash into each another and enhance one another and all that crap, but for now, let’s separate them for the sake of Keene’s novel. And if you somehow jumped into this post without reading the title, we’re talking about Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow today (sometimes called The Rutting Season).
Despite being the only living horror writer who has never met or corresponded with Brian Keene, I’m becoming a huge fan of his. Most folks have been reading him for a decade or so, but I only got into his stuff in the past couple of years. I realize I’m late to the party, but that’s alright by me—I’ve always been a late bloomer. So why do I like him?
One word: hoodies.
Okay, so his proclivity for eighties heavy metal aside, let me share a few other reasons. To begin with, he’s an incredible writer. Secondly, he works as hard as anyone to do right by his fans. A third reason is that he says stuff like this. And if all that isn’t enough, did I mention that he sometimes hangs out at my favorite horror forum?
So let’s talk a little about Dark Hollow, keeping in mind the three things I want from the books I read.
It should make me think: If you’ve ever read Keene, you know he pulls off the delicate balancing act of respecting those authors who have come before him without ever aping them. That’s quite a feat. In Dark Hollow it becomes apparent very early on (as early as the opening epigraph) that Keene knows he’s treading where guys like Arthur Machen, M.R. James, and Algernon Blackwood once dwelt. The antagonist of the book is unique to Keene, but when Hylinus rears his terrifying head and the woods begin to do funny things, you can’t help but remember Machen’s “The Great God Pan” or Blackwood’s “The Willows.” But because Keene’s work is so original, the memory of those other authors never distracts or diminishes the spell Keene casts. To the contrary, the largely subconscious recall of those authors and those works makes what happens in the forest even scarier than it already is.
Further, Dark Hollow does what every great horror novel should do—it makes you think about what you would do if you were placed in the protagonist’s situation. Adam Senft, Keene’s author hero, goes through hell in the book, and because Keene takes us from sympathy to empathy to identification with Senft, we can’t help but view events through his eyes and wonder just what the heck we would do if we too were faced with the horrible and the inexplicable.
Speaking of Adam Senft…
It should make me feel: Let me ask you…have you ever gone through something terrible? Have you ever watched one of your dearest loved ones experience a personal hell and felt those anguished flames consume you too? Have you ever felt incapable of performing some daunting task or felt helpless in the face of some problem? Ever been betrayed by a loved one or seen someone you love do something that was totally alien to his or her personality? And what about dogs? You like them? If so, just how much? What would you risk to keep your best canine friend alive?
The above questions only scratch the surface of the emotional turmoil that churns in Dark Hollow. I defy you to read this book and not see someone you love in Adam’s wife Tara. I defy you to remain unmoved by the anguish she and Adam are enduring. I defy you to not gasp in terror as Adam’s dog Big Steve falls into harm’s way.
How ’bout Adam’s buddies? Cliff, Dale, and Merle are so well-drawn and so likeable that you’ll be thinking back to the friends you had in your hometown (unless they were jerks). Or, if you’re lucky, they’ll make you appreciate the friends you still have. And that’s not to say the supporting cast is generic—it’s anything but. Each character is distinct without trying too hard to be. Keene doesn’t give one guy a Swedish accent and another some weird facial tic. He makes each one a living, breathing person, and that attention to detail pays off big-time in the book’s waning chapters.