Condemned to die, his execution didn’t go exactly as planned. Now John Smith blazes a trail down the highway in a black Cadillac. Destination: Wild and crazy Americana with all the trimmings. Veer off the path, you get nothing but pain and suffering right in the gut. Oh, and the voices…they’ll drive you insane. John’s pretty sure he’s dead. He’s wearing a dead man’s suit and smoking a dead man’s cigarettes. That autopsy stitching on his chest is a sure giveaway. Someone’s unleashed Hell on Earth and it’s more nightmarish than anyone could imagine. Oh, and there’s a girl. He doesn’t know who she is. All he knows he has to kill her, and the sooner, the better.
Bringing to mind Clive Barker, Michael Cisco and throwing it all together in a blender with a double scoop of Grindhouse, John C. Foster presents Dead Men (Libros De Inferno, Book One). Foster dives deep into a nightmarish world of supernatural hitmen on a mission from Hell. These men are all executed by the state for hideous crimes and murder and brought back from the dead. All they know is their name is John Smith, and they have to kill a girl. Any deviation from the plan is met with excruciating pain and madness. The girl is not just any girl. Her name is Hoodoo Girl, and her secret can bring the whole thing down. The Priest is the puppeteer who sets the whole plan in motion, controlling the John Smiths to the bloody end.
After a bumpy opening chapter which is a little more style than substance, Foster gets things going proper with the John Smiths. Four Death Row darlings, all executed and brought back from the dead. Foster quickly handles the John Smith naming issue by naming one of the Johns Alice, and another of them Ghoul. The men awaken in a rundown asylum and break free, burning the place down in the process. The asylum scenes are very reminiscent of the works of surreal writer Michael Cisco, while Foster channels early Clive Barker into the mix to liven things up a bit. From there, the action escalates quickly as the men begin the hunt. The fact that the men know they are dead adds a rather neat dynamic that begs the question of Why? Why them? Why do they need to kill Hoodoo Girl? Why can’t they walk away from this and just die? The narrative is bloody, extremely violent, and downright creepy. Foster’s style leans more to atmosphere and setting than deep characterization and introspection, which suits this kind of horror/action/noir quite nicely. The set pieces are well drawn out and carefully executed with rotating character pacing to keep the whole thing flowing quite nicely. Part of a planned trilogy, Foster spoon feeds the main arc throughout this debut, drawing out more questions than he answers to keep his readers on their toes. Part One is all about the setup, and Foster handles that as expected, priming his readers to continue the story once this part come to an end.
It’s rather easy to nitpick any debut novel to death, and while the story does fall a little flat sometimes, it’s not all downhill by any means. Foster casts a wide net, hooks out in every direction, practically throwing everything in but the kitchen sink, yet the net he casts still manages to snag our imagination and draw us in. The problem with the narrative is that it seems like there are too many irons in the fire. There are Hands of Glory, mad scientists, a decrepit maternity ward, and Robert Johnson at the crossroads references galore just to top things off, yet the way these are introduced and woven into the story is fresh and invigorating. Once the story gains any real momentum, the pacing style sets that character thrust aside for a visit with some of the other characters. And there are tons of other characters, some only on the page for a handful of scenes, others fighting in the pit for their own chance in the spotlight. At times the story feels scattered, and if it wasn’t for Foster’s excellent narrative ability, the plot would stretch out so thin the story would disappear into the void.
The real measure of a debut horror/action novel is if the story is engaging and entertaining, and if the author can maintain that sense of direction for an extended page count for an enjoyable experience. For a debut novel of a proposed trilogy so chock full of action at every turn, Foster delivers the goods in the entertainment department in bloody, explosive fashion. The story is smart and crisp, forcing the reader to work for the many pleasures held within the pages. You don’t have to worry about the plotline being spelt out for you by the characters, a kiss of death for many first time novelists. Foster keeps you guessing throughout, only giving up the pieces of the puzzle you need at the time, forcing you to wait until the next installment. Hopefully, Libros de Inferno, Book Two isn’t too far down the line, because we can’t wait to see what Foster has in store for us next.
Publisher: Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing
Release Date: 22 July 2015
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