Do you like to be scared? Maybe you’ve worked your way through the back-catalogs of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and now you want to read from a different letter of the alphabet for a while. Or maybe you’re feeling jaded and numb, because all those other horror lists have the same damn books by the same damn authors on them and you’d really appreciate a little variety. Since we’ve entered the witching month of October, why not let us take you on a guided tour of hell? Keep your hands and feet inside the article at all times, and if you feel faint, just tell yourself: “It’s only a book…it’s only a book…” This week’s entry is “Afraid – A Novel of Terror” by Jack Kilborn.
I’m not sure what I expected when I picked up “Afraid”, but it wasn’t what it delivered. I mean, for one thing, look at that pretentious title. “Afraid – A Novel of Terror”. Oooh. Like, I’m so scared here, Scoob! Zoinks! ‘OK Kilborn, whoever the hell you think you are–you’ve got 288 pages. Do your worst and do it slow.’ Mothers, tell your children: do not taunt Jack Kilborn.
I’ve spent the better part of two decades working in a bookstore, the better part of three decades as a horror reader, and separating the wheat from the chaff is, by this time, practically second-nature. Rule number one: if you have to describe your story as “a novel of terror”, then your book probably isn’t as scary as you think it is. Kilborn (the alter-ego of mystery writer Joe Konrath, though I didn’t know it at the time) knew this, but wasn’t being ironic–this guy set the perfect trap for people like me. Like a guerrilla laying out an obvious trap to obscure the one that’s meant to kill, he lures the reader in with a false sense of security then goes straight for the groin (literally in one case).
Safe Haven, Wisconsin is aptly named. It’s one of those off-the-back-roads small towns where everybody knows everybody, the worst crime you’ll ever witness is public intoxication, and the hardest decision you’ll face is hunting or fishing. The outside world never intrudes on Safe Haven, and Safe Haven is perfectly content to leave the outside world alone in exchange. Then the helicopter crashes, and all hell breaks loose. Well, not all hell, exactly. Those who encounter the occupants of the copter might think they’re demons, but in reality they’re much, much worse. They turn a squad of Green Berets into fish food in minutes. Just imagine what they can do to a bunch of untrained civillians? Actually you don’t have to imagine, because Kilborn’s happy to lay it all out for you in stomach-churning detail.
As chaos sweeps Safe Haven, it’s up to Sheriff Streng to maintain law and order. But Streng’s approaching retirement age, and the threat to his town comes from a highly-trained and morality-deprived group of attackers. As the force besieging Safe Haven goes about their task with grim determination, Streng joins forces with other desperate residents including local greasy spoon waitress Fran, her son Duncan, and Josh, a firefighter and paramedic. The more they learn, the more questions they have: Why does the military have the only road into and out of Safe Harbor blocked off with a tank? Why aren’t the National Guard coming to assist? What’s the weird lottery the residents are being told they’ve won? Just what the hell was on that helicopter? Was the crash truly an accident, or did someone set out to terrorize Safe Haven on purpose? Most importantly, can the slaughter be stopped before it claims the life of every resident, and if so, at what cost?
“Afraid” cruises along at a mile-a-minute rampaging orgy of carnage. Technically it’s a thriller first and a horror story second, but you’re not going to have time to worry about it as you jump from place to place, resident to resident, viewpoint to viewpoint. In what is either a dick move or stroke of genius, Kilborn offers no chapter breaks, only perspective shifts. It’s the literary equivalent of a casino not having windows: readers take breaks when the writers offer them, and a writer who offers no breaks is more likely to hold a captive audience. “Afraid” is a traumatizing roller coaster of severed limbs, sadistic torture, and conspiracy theories so outlandish they make perfect sense. The truth behind the Red Ops team is the most terrifying aspect of the book, because if Kilborn can come up with such an outlandish hypothesis, it’s probable someone else is working on it for real. If the violence doesn’t keep you up all night, this idea will. Finally, as with Kilborn’s other work, don’t assume anyone has script immunity. Life’s not fair, and sometimes a hero with a witty one-liner isn’t enough to overcome a 7-foot tall, muscle-bound sadist who hurts people because it’s fun. No one escapes a Kilborn book unscathed. “Game of Thrones” fans will feel right at home.
Most disturbing scene: In a book filled with gouged throats, severed limbs, impaled hearts, broken necks, and crushed testicles, picking a most disturbing scene should be difficult; that it wasn’t should speak volumes. While it’s unrealistic an entire town could be convinced they’d won some kind of lottery, especially when many residents wonder when they bought tickets, greed overcomes common sense all too often in our society. Unfortunately for Safe Haven’s denizens, this isn’t a lottery of the Mega Millions or PowerBall variety, it’s a lottery in the Shirley Jackson sense. Once you see the prize you’re not going to want it, and there’s no way to opt for Door #2 instead. If your skin’s not crawling by the time you’re done with this section, I’m sorry to inform you the test came back positive and you’re actually a sociopath. Maybe get that checked out. I hear the prescribed treatment is to read other things by Jack Kilborn.