Thinking back over the horror novels that I have particularly enjoyed, I’ve decided that they divide relatively neatly into two large categories. For lack of better terminology I’ve chosen Narrow and Broad. These are not necessarily qualitative terms; a Narrow novel may be powerful, evocative, even great. A Broad novel may be thin, superficial, formulaic. But in some senses the two words suggest my responses to the storytelling each attempts.
Narrow horror novels concentrate on the horror, the monster. They are about a creature, in some cases more than they are about the humans that interact with it. For readers intrigued by the darkness, the monstrous, these may be ideal. The story begins with intimations of evil; expands through revelations of the extent, focus, and purposes of the evil; and concludes with the destruction (permanently or temporarily) of the evil. To a degree, perhaps the most famous monster book of all, Bram Stoker’s brilliant Dracula, is a Narrow novel. Even though he does not feature in the book for some time, Dracula overshadows everything else, and when he is gone, there is nothing more to say.
Broad horror novels work in the opposite way. Their concern is primarily for the people, the individuals involved, and the ways in which they must deal with the intrusion of darkness and evil into their lives. The monster is every bit as vital, every bit as threatening, every bit as repellent (or, conversely, as seductive) as in a Narrow horror novel. But in a Broad novel, humans count for a bit more. Even without the evil, there is a story to be told, often multiple stories; and the evil may in fact link otherwise unrelated tales into a complex of narration and revelation.
To achieve this, Broad novels tend to be long, or at least longer than most Narrow novels. No one would argue that Dracula or King’s Salem’s Lot or McCammon’s Usher’s Passing are ‘short’ novels, but for me they are better considered Narrow than Broad. King’s It, The Shining, and The Stand; McCammon’s Swan Song, Stinger, and The Wolf’s Hour; Simmons’ Carrion Comfort — these and many others are Broad, in no small part because they are provided with a broad canvas upon which to trace the movements of evil through human lives.
Joe McKinney’s latest novel, Inheritance, is Broad horror. It extends beyond the limits of a monster or a creature to explore the world in which horror can find its place. It is a ghost story, with ghosts evil and ghosts benign ultimately contesting against each other for a human soul.
It is a story of black magic and witchcraft, in which the forces of darkness and destruction manipulate the heart of a scapegoat (literally!) to bring about a final dissolution.
It is a story of the walking dead … although not the zombies of traditional fiction but something crueler, something closer to the original conception in which the dead are controlled by the living and forced to perform acts that would have been anathema to their living selves.
It is a story of cults that reach out and, almost invisibly, trap an unknowing city, drawing it piece by piece into a whirlwind of evil.
It is a police procedural. In it readers see the inner workings of a large city police force — in this case San Antonio — as it systematically follows clues that lead to … the impossible.
It is a story of brotherhood among officers, of pranks and games that only thinly disguise the fact that any of them would sacrifice anything, up to and including their lives, for the welfare of their colleagues.
It is a story of domestic violence, in which small matters only hint at the horrendous truth behind abuse, exploitation, and perversion. It demonstrates how easily violence perpetrates itself across generations and what is required to stop its progress.
And it is ultimately a story of an Apocalypse waiting, drawing nearer, its threat gaining strength with every passing page…and a final moment of redemptive sacrifice.
In all, it is a thoroughly imagined, thoroughly developed, masterfully written novel of broad horror.
And one final thought.
All of these points developed gradually but inexorably through the course of the story.
They were, of course, not the first thing I noticed about the book. The first thing — and the worst thing — struck my eyes when I first opened the book.
The type face is ridiculously small. Especially when set next to unusually wide margins (the better to take notes in, my dear!).
Then I started reading, and I noticed the second thing — and the best thing — about Inheritance.
The size of the type made no difference. Once I began reading, I was caught. Inheritance tells its story of ghosts and possession inordinately well, engaging readers through 350 pages (which would be perhaps double that with a larger type), never flagging, never introducing any irrelevancies or digressions.