Monday, 3 October 2011

Book Review | Black Light by Patrick Melton, Stephen Romano & Marcus Dunstan

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If you have a supernatural problem that won't go away, you need Buck Carlsbad: private eye, exorcist, and last resort. Buck's got a way with spirits that no one else can match, and a lot of questions that only spirits can answer.

Buck has spent years looking deep into the Blacklight on the other side of death, trying to piece together the mystery that destroyed his family and left him for dead. It's dangerous, but it's his only hope of finding out what happened to them - and what made him the way he is.

But then Buck takes a call from a billionaire, and finds himself working the most harrowing case of his career. One that will either reveal the shocking secrets of his life, or end it forever...


Black Light by Patrick Melton, Stephen Romano & Marcus Dunstan will do decent business, I expect, but not because of its content. Either that, or precisely because of its content.

We're three quarters through it already, so I think it's safe to say, from my vantage point, that 2011 was roughly a year long, contained almost exactly a year's worth of stuff - good, bad and butt-ugly alike - and will surely go down the in history books as the year between 2010 and 2012. A year, then, in many senses like any other -- except, for the first time since America vs. Iraq began, there was no SAW film!

Not the greatest of tragedies, truly. But I won't pretend there hasn't been a little hole in my soul since it transpired the franchise really was taking a break. The SAW films have been terrible, by and large - I'd recommend none but the first one - yet against my better judgement, I've watched every annual installment with a silly grin, a barely-suppressed snigger, and a fizzy drink so very vast I could probably take down everyone's favourite dearly-departed serial killer with it myself.

And I'll kinda miss that feeling. The Paranormal Activity films which appear to have picked up where SAW left off have just been too good to date to fit Jigsaw's slippers in the inimitable, awful way he wore them. So when news of Black Light broke - not so long ago at all, in truth - I admit it: I breathed what must have been the strangest sigh of relief I've ever experienced.

Black Light is for its part almost exactly what you'd expect from a first novel by three dubious screenwriters variously behind the most execrable of all the SAW movies (from SAW IV through last year's "final chapter," if you must know), Piranha 3DD, the monster nonsense of the three Feast flicks, and an episode of Masters of Horror, may its much-maligned memory rest in peace: it's silly, horrible, set-piece driven torture porn... just with ghosts instead of puppets, or hunchbacks, or whatever.

So I enjoyed it, obviously.

Buck Carlsbad is a freelance ghost hunter a la Most Haunted riddled with token affectations: he's a cat-napper, a self-mutilator, and he carries a Walkman everywhere... because iPods, right? They're just too cool for school. Mysteriously, however, Buck doesn't remember any of his first seven years, except that he emerged from that dead zone in his head down two parents but up the gift-come-curse of second sight. He can peer into the Blacklight, you see; where the lost souls roam, dead but not yet gone.

"We call it the Big Black. It might be where they all go in the end. Might be heaven and hell, all rolled up into one endless stretch of nowhere. Not that heaven and hell were ever real to being with. That's another thing people don't understand. Everything you think you know about life and death and some sort of God that loves you or a devil that hates us - well, guess what. You're wrong about all that. And what I do ain't about blessings or rituals or holy symbols, man." (p.43)

Oh no. What Buck does is slice and dice and grind and pulp and generally kick the living you-know-what out of the myriad malevolent spirits he hunts down like lice. He's practically Batman. And the Dark Knight seems to have fallen on hard times, as of the moment Melton, Romano & Dunstan deign to introduce us, so when a call comes in from billionaire extraordinaire Sidney Jaeger offering our capeless crusader employment tailored to his area of expertise - and linked somehow to the disappearance of his folks so long ago - Buck swallows his suspicions and jumps at the chance to exorcise the Jaeger Laser, a bleeding-edge bullet-train to Vegas, of the nine horsemen of the apocalypse. Or something.

Black Light is a lot of nonsense, needless to say, and it needs focus like the hole in its head it wears so unashamedly; a relatively slow start gives way to a lot of attention-seeking antics (a single page references Facebook, Twitter and Wikipedia) with tips of the hat over the duration to everything and everyone from Elvis to Paranormal Activity, To Live and Die in LA through the continuing adventures of Scarlett Johansson. Black Light is proudly and at times desperately self-referential, ludicrous enough as to beggar belief on numerous occasions, and so bloated as to seem in dire need of a take-no-prisoners line edit. I started to miss proper paragraphs very early on, I'll say. And in light of the pointed absence of descriptive prose, the screenwriting heritage of these three kings is laid bare as a hairless babe.

As a pop. horror novel, however - particularly one so beholden to its torture-porn cinema lineage - it has its moments, and in those moments it is poised to chill and thrill in the mode of early John Connolly or middling Michael Koryta. Fans of another of Mulholland Books' imported authors - namely Duane Swierczynski of Fun and Games fame - will find lots to like in Black Light, I think, if they, as we, can find it in themselves to overlook the same self-seriousness in the face of absolute farce that was such a plague on SAW.

I did. And I'll be doing it again next October, no doubt, because you know what? "Cheese works if you mean it," (p.252) and Melton, Romano & Dunstan surely do.

Though that may not be a pearl of pasteurised wisdom applicable to all things...


Black Light
by Patrick Melton, Stephen Romano
& Marcus Dunstan

UK & US Publication: October 2011, Mulholland Books

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