Guest Blogger and WWEnd Member, Charles Dee Mitchell, has contributed a great many book reviews to WWEnd including his extensive Philip K. Dickathon blog series. In this series Dee explores the darker side of genre fiction and it’s practitioners. Be sure to visit his blog www.potatoweather.blogspot.com for more genre goodness.
The less Tom Piccirilli encumbers his novels with plot, the better they are. At least that has been the case in his five early horror novels I have read: Hexes (1999), The Deceased (2000), The Night Class (2001), A Choir of Ill Children (2004) and, Headstone City (2006). The novels are by no means short of grotesque and often unpleasant incidents. But Piccirilli works by accumulation not by character arcs and interwoven themes. His theme is consistently that of a young man, in his late twenties or thirties, who must come to accept his role in society, whether it is the gangland of Brooklyn or a backwater town somewhere in the American South. But the novels are not traditional bildungsromans. This is not in the world of David Copperfield or Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. These are nightmares.
Demonic evil, ghosts, astral projections, some handy knowledge of witchcraft, and alternate realities are daily issues for Piccirilli’s protagonists. In Headstone City, Johnny Danetello endures frequent visitations from the dead, ranging from the girl he could not save from an overdose to his mother to "the boy with the damaged head." Caleb Prentiss, an alcoholic upperclassman at a small, snowbound Midwestern university, wants to find out more about the girl murdered in his dorm room over winter break. He is often accompanied by his sister who committed suicide; and, when he receives the unasked-for blessing of the stigmata in both palms, he leaves bloody paths across the snowy campus. Thomas, the central character of A Choir of Ill Children has too many issues to go into here, but one involves the care of his brothers, triplets conjoined at the frontal lobe.
Piccirilli’s locales are sharply observed locations that could exist nowhere but in his novels. In addition to the snowbound campus in The Night Class and the swampy town of Kingdom Come in A Choir of Ill Children, Piccirilli delineates in Hexes the town of Summerfel – Summerfell! – a small town dominated by an asylum named Panecraft, a lighthouse undermined by tunnels containing some unspeakable horror, a local hangout called Krunch Burger, and a rich man’s house that is more like a castle than a mansion. If you don’t like things in Summerfel, you can always move the next town over to Gallows. Headstone City takes place in an imaginary neighborhood of an otherwise identifiable Brooklyn, a neighborhood where the decaying mansions of stars from the earliest days of silent film surround the enormous cemetery of the title. The neighborhood is still run by some goonish gangsters who have mostly moved their money into legit businesses but who still, guided by a misplaced enthusiasm for their once glorious past, enact the occasional bloody vendetta against one another.
Several internet customer reviews complain that these books make no sense, but I think those readers are looking for the wrong things. Like a coherent plot. Piccirilli is a lot of fun to read. There is always that central character who knows a bit more than those around him; whether it is more effective magical spells or just that so much of what is going on is bullshit. When Piccirilli brings more plotting into the mix, things tend to go wrong. The Deceased turns into little more that a pretty good horror movie, with girls, who I assume have large breasts, running around an old house during a thunderstorm. The gangster story that runs through Headstone City is not as resolved or effective as the weirdness that underlies it.
But these books are just the kind of fun I hoped modern horror novels could offer. They are literate, amusing, at times really icky, and never slow down. I understand that Piccirilli’s recent novels are more straightforward crime stories, so I hope he has worked out those plotting issues. On the off chance that anyone reading this might actually pick up a Piccirilli novel, I recommend starting with the best, A Choir of Ill Children. If nothing else, you will learn a really interesting new use of the word "vinegar."