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 “In The Dark” by Richard Laymon.
Richard Laymon never got the recognition he deserved in the US until it was too late, but he helped dozens of other authors navigate the perilous waters of publication. You’d never know it reading the stuff he penned, but Laymon’s reputation as being one of the nicest writers to walk the earth seems well-deserved. After a disastrous debacle with his third book, “The Woods Are Dark”, which suffered innumerable cuts, re-writes, and deplorable changes by a stable of line editors from Warner Books, Laymon fell off the radar in the States for over a decade. Thankfully a stable publication run in the UK courtesy of Headline’s horror line kept him afloat and he was able to continue doing what he loved up until his death in 2001 from a sudden heart attack. Not even death could stop Laymon’s typewriter though, as his daughter and wife worked to see the remainder of his unpublished work given life.
“In The Dark”, published in 1994, is not Laymon’s best novel, yet it’s one of my favorites. That feels odd to write, but it’s the truth. Despite a few problems with the narrative and a protagonist who you eventually want to slap for stupidity, “In The Dark” is one of those books where the grandness of the idea and the question it poses are worth the lackluster ending and a few personality quirks from its main characters. Laymon just wants Jane (and by proxy yourself, dear reader) to find her limit.
A mousy, keep-to-herself, small town librarian type. That’s Jane Kerry in a nutshell. The most action she sees in a day is helping patrons locate the biographies, and explaining the difference between fiction and non-fiction. But an anonymous letter with a $50 bill and a riddle to solve (from someone calling themselves M.O.G., short for ‘Master of Games’) sends her spiraling into a world she never imagined existed, and pushes her to extremes she never knew she could reach. But who’s the mysterious guy who just so happened to show up at the same time the note did? Surely M.O.G., whoever they are, just wants to have a little fun. Probably some rich eccentric who delights in making the little people dance, right?
Yeah, right. This is a horror novel. You know that whatever happens, it isn’t going to end well for anybody. At first the tasks Jane has to accomplish are simple, but low-paying. Find a particular book in the library. Discover something hidden on a statue at the local college campus. Knock on the door of a stranger’s house. Innocent fun with a low possibility of getting caught, and few consequences even if she did. These soon morph into more and more dangerous and strange tasks. Would you sleep in a coffin in the middle of a graveyard wearing nothing but intimate apparel? Break into someone’s home? Commit murder?
The further Jane goes in the game, the more she risks and the greater the reward. Her monetary prize doubles with each successful action, and soon she’s rolling in more money than she’s ever seen in her life. When she decides she’s done playing the game though, that’s when the real horror show beings. M.O.G. doesn’t take kindly to quitters, and the consequences for walking away could be fatal.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because movies have long loved the idea of a puppet master pulling the strings of his or her victims. The entire Saw franchise is built around such a theme, although those who play the game are chosen at random and do not “volunteer”. The 2006 Thai film 13: Game of Death (remade in 2014 as 13 Sins in the US) is the closest cinematic analog to Laymon’s story I’ve found yet, and is well worth watching. There was also an extremely awesome B&W amateur adaptation made by Clifton and Dwayne Holmes a few years after the book came out which was sadly never released (although the 2001 Leisure paperback edition used a still from the film as the cover art). Laymon saw a rough cut of the film before he died though, and had nothing but praise for the filmmakers and the actors involved. I agree: for a low-budget shoot involving a short time frame and local university actors, it’s a kick-ass distillation of the story. Much like the film version of Stephen King’s The Mist, I also think the ending of Clifton and Dwayne’s version is superior to the original’s. The book’s ending is fairly straightforward, while the ending of the film is much more in the vein of the Twilight Zone.
Again, “In The Dark” is not one of Laymon’s best novels, but I am unashamed to say I rank it among my absolute favorites. I’m a fast reader, but never have I flown through a 500-page book the way I tore through this one. “In The Dark” starts slow, builds, and then explodes with a furious pace that never lets up until the last chapter. I’ll concede Laymon often had better ideas than his stories were capable of living up to, and this is very much one of those times. It’s still fun as hell in that glorious B-movie horror style that Laymon embraced and made his own, and ultimately that’s what counts in my opinion.
Most disturbing scene: For a Laymon book, “In The Dark” is far tamer than many of his other excursions but it still features several moments likely to squick out the reader. The one most likely to do so comes halfway through the book, when a simple breaking and entering job at an old house turns into a horror show of kidnapping, cannibalism, and murder with absolutely no warning. Bad things are going on at the house of S. Savile at 907 Mayr Heights, make no mistake, but Jane’s at the point where that evening’s task will earn her thousands of dollars and she isn’t just going to walk away from it all…