Trade Paper, 202 pages, $11.95
Review by Sheila M. Merritt
“He loved writing horror stories, loved letting his imagination loose where it would reach its tentacles out into the world and gather up the dark twisted things that existed out there in the night.” Crystallized in that quote, author Gregory Bastianelli reaches into the heart of horror scribes and readers alike; and squeezes hard. In his novel Jokers Club, Bastianelli blazes into Stephen King territory: an It-like premise of youths who share a terrible secret and reunite years later. He also indulges in ambiguity that would make Henry James beam with pride. The narrative vacillates between the supernatural and psychological; depending on how one chooses to interpret the words of the protagonist – a writer with a facility for fabrication, and a brain tumor. Psychic games abound: The deck seems stacked against the main character, and the joker is indeed wild. The story simmers with a febrile intensity which comes to a boil several times during the course of the yarn. What’s real and surreal meld as guilt and repressed feelings surface, culminating more in chaos than catharsis.
Severely ill Geoffrey Thorn is grasping at straws and memories. An unpublished writer from New Hampshire, he returns to his hometown after living in New York City where he had hoped (and failed) to ignite inspiration. At a reunion with the boyhood friends who formed the Jokers Club, Geoff gets artistically stimulated. There is fertile material in the community; many local eccentrics and much history. It’s the club, though, that sparks his creative core. Once again in the company of the comrades of his youth, Thorn is stirred by contrition to compose a tale based on a deadly incident. Boyish revenge went horribly awry. Geoff has long wondered if there wasn’t a lethal calculation behind the nasty prank. Conjecturing about the past collides with mysteries of the present. Someone is murdering the remaining club members, and the serial killer could very well be one of them.
Faulty recollections and misconceived perceptions cloud the protagonist’s ability to process what is happening. The tumor may be causing hallucinatory fantasies; or perhaps it is merely Thorn exerting literally license. Such ambiguous possibilities permeate the narrative, which also has its share of irony. In a trenchant and reflective passage, a friend of Geoff analyzes the collapse of his marriage: “I think the real problem is that I love her, but I don’t really like her. And I think she likes me, she just doesn’t love me.”
The plot of Jokers Club is like Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None reinterpreted by Franz Kafka. This requires an intelligent equilibrium to be successful. Gregory Bastianelli accomplishes the symmetry without sacrificing the suspense. Rather like a sequence in the novel in which a house of cards is constructed, Bastianelli shrewdly knows how to achieve a complex and delicate balance. The consummation hinges on a holding of breath; carefully suspending the tenuous along with the tension.
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