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Dark Channel

Ray Garton

Bantam Falcon Books

US Paperback First May 1992

ISBN 0-553-29190-4

436 pages; $4.99

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel 1992




04-29-02, 12-13-02

As a one time member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church, Ray Garton is uniquely qualified to write about the cult mentality. In "Dark Channel", his latest paperback, he uses this knowledge to give his mainstream horror novel about a channeler from hell a psychological validity absent from most horror novels. It's just one of several amazing technical feats that make this the best mainstream horror novel in quite some time.

Let me make it clear from the beginning that "Dark Channel" is a thoroughly mainstream, middle-of-the-road horror novel to chill the masses while sunbathing this summer. Generally speaking that's not a good sign; there are at least as many MOR horror novels as there are MOR rock bands, and they're usually pretty putrid. But Garton comes from an edgy background, and is arguably one of the fathers of splatterpunk horror. He injects that edge into this mainstream work, but leaves behind the overt, nauseating gore. What differentiates Garton from the rest of the pack is the validity, the reality of his characters. They usually seem like someone we might know; sometime screwed up, sometimes successful, always contradictory.

It's more than the characters that carry this novel along. Despite his splattered past, Garton's best scares in this book are decidedly quiet. But don't let that make you think they're not scary, or inventive or memorable. For example, at one point, a woman whose child has been taken into the cult is touring an art gallery they operate. She notices something is wrong with all the pictures, but can't immediately figure out what it is, until it dawns on her that none of the works are signed. Shortly afterwards, they come to a section of the gallery featuring the work of children. In a moment of utter terror and despair, she realizes that her own child's work is displayed. He's in, he converted, he's history. It's a scene that works on the reader's sympathy for the mother while reinforcing the chills she -- and the reader -- feel.

But it's not just those who are aligned against the cult that get Garton's careful attention. Mark Schroeder, who falls under the sway of the charismatic leader, is portrayed as one of the most complex characters ever to be brainwashed. He starts out as a cocaine addict, and his descent into this all-too-common hell is powerfully rendered. He recovers, but then falls victim to Hester Thorne's brainwashing psycho-babble, and the ante is upped, all bets are off. He takes his child, leaves his wife and joins the cult. Just when you know, you know in your heart that he's the ultimate scum of the earth, Garton gives you his point of view, and shows you his aching doubts about what he has done. Garton makes Mark Scoreder's regret as powerful an emotion as terror.

Then there's Liz, the evangelical Christian. Christians generally don't fare too well in horror fiction, and sure, they generally deserve it and that's not too surprising. Garton takes on the stereotype, and against all odds, creates a comprehensble, believable, likable woman who just happens to be a very strong Christian. She's not smarmy, too good, secretly sadistic or any of the other cliches you'll see bandied about on today's bookstands. What she is, is a great, likable and memorable character.

In spite of the superb characterizations and the scares both subtle and overt, the novel manages to keep its page turning momentum until, in the very end, it seems to move too fast. When we're done with all these great charcters, we don't want wrap-up, we want more. Here's this wonderful book and it's already gone, finished, kaput. Yes, some of the "monster scenes" pale a bit next to the Garton's subtle scares. (Who'd ever have thought that Garton would do "subtle scares"?) But this novel -- large, rewarding, exceedingly well-crafted -- should mark a milestone in the career of that one-time cult member, Ray Garton.