Evil Dark by Justin Gustainis is a crime noir-paranormal hybrid (available April 24, 2012).
All fiction is a journey into the fantastic. Whether it is the fog-shrouded streets of Sherlock Holmes’s London or the magical world of NBC’s paranormal police procedural, Grimm, a tinge of unreality surrounds the tale. These worlds, after all, do not really exist.
When we readers or viewers are introduced to a particular universe, the narration can take two courses. The Grimm example (as well as the exploits of Luke Skywalker, Frodo Baggins, or the early episodes of ABC’s Castle) shows a character experiencing the new world for the first time. There’s a palpable sense of wonder as the events unfold. On the other hand, there is the “lived in” pattern. In this version, the world being described is not necessarily old, but familiar and understood. The large majority of private eye fiction falls into this camp. Think just about any story in which the detective tells you the story in first person, be it Phillip Marlowe, Nick Charles, or Patrick Kenzie.
Justin Gustainis’s Detective Sgt. Stan Markowski falls firmly into the latter group. He is a cop, true, but he is no ordinary cop. He is a member of the Occult Crimes Unit. Now, with an organization like that, you might expect the action to take place in New York, Chicago, or LA. Maybe New Orleans. Nope. Scranton, Pennsylvania. I’ve never been to Scranton, but it’s an unlikely locale for a book involving monsters, fairies, and all the other nightmarish creations of your imagination.
But that’s what gives this book its charm. It’s unusual, even if it is written in a very conventional, conversational style. This first-person story is a by-the-book supernatural investigation. Many of the blurbs try for that pithy one-liner: if A and B had a kid, then Markowski would be the offspring, the blurbers trying to show up the book itself. One review I read captured the feel of the book well: it’s like Dragnet with monsters. I would amend that: Markowski is like Joe Friday, but without the optimism.
Markowski, as a narrator, can be downright funny as he’s telling you’re the mundane aspects of his job. It’s subtle, too. Take this passage from early in the novel:
So I left a note for my daughter Christine, who doesn’t get up until sundown, and heading off for Luigi’s, my favorite Italian restaurant. I would have invited Christine to come along, but she’s kind of on a restricted diet.
There are innumerable instances of this kind of humor and funny non sequiturs (“His name is Dietrich, but he looked about as Aryan as Michael Jordan”) spicing the narrative throughout the book.
But what is Evil Dark about? This second Occult Crime novel (after 2009’s Hard Spell) involves snuff films, specifically a nasty amalgamation of the fantastical world and ours: supernatural snuff films. Where typical snuff films record the murder or death a person, supernatural snuff films take this a few degrees higher in magnitude. In supernatural snuff films, a demon, summoned by an off-screen sorcerer, possesses one of the two people on the screen. The possessed person then proceeds to “snuff” the life from the other person on screen.
Lots of modern writers would take great glee in describing all the bloody atrocities inflicted upon the poor soul. Gustainis has Markowski take a different approach:
What happen next went from zero to unspeakable in a very few seconds. Soon afterward, it went beyond unspeakable, to a level of horror that there are no words to describe.
The thing about describing all the details of a brutal murder like this is that, as gross and violent a death a writer could describe, the reader might have the facility to imagine worse. With this little sentence or two, the reader can fill in—or not, depending on one’s proclivities—all the gruesome details one wants to, leaving nothing out. In most ways, this kind of description is worse.
Needless to say, Markowski and his team face some truly dreadful things in the course of this investigation. The writing is clean and spare and hooked me right away. I’ll admit that this kind of story is not usually my cup of tea, but Gustainis, with Markowski as a guide, truly sucked me into this unique world of fantastical creatures and police procedural. It’s a fun book, with lots of treats along the way to differentiate that world from ours.
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