Amazon Digital Services
ASIN: B00B6NY4SY, March 2013, $3.99, eBook
Reviewed by Michael R. Collings
One of the first “great” books I remember being assigned to read in school—somewhere around fifty years ago—was Thornton Wilder’s 1928 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Bridge of San Luis Rey. As a sophomore in high school, I was probably too young to appreciate the many subtleties and nuances of the novel, but I can recall vivid and extended discussions among the students (we were all in accelerated/Honors English, all had top GPAs, and all had vastly inflated conceptions of our own intellectual depth and awareness) about the novel’s basic themes: Fate versus chance, meaning versus meaninglessness, cosmic justice versus cosmic indifference. And, of course, we knew that we, perhaps alone of all mortals, had unraveled and resolved the ambiguities of the story.
I recall the discussions, yes…but not much about the novel. As I noted, it was probably too sophisticated for us, and we were too assured of ourselves to allow any questioning of what was and was not important in the book. As a result, I have probably only thought of Bridge a handful of times during the intervening half century, usually as a result of a chance reference in a book or television show. I certainly don’t brood about it or look for allusions to it in ever book I read.
So it was with a bit of surprise that, a couple of chapters into Michaelbrent’s recent horror novel, Darkbound, I found myself wondering— à la those long-past discussions—about the same issues. Six people waiting in a subway station; six people board the end car and take their positions scattered through it; six people begin to experience things inexplicable, uncanny, and ultimately horrifying.
Why these six people? Was there any common thread(s) to unite them, to justify the terrors they were facing? If there was, what was it? and if there wasn’t, where was the sense of order, of control, of meaning in Darkbound?
A few chapters later, and the questions shifted. One character—clearly the most despicable and degraded of the six—dies (or perhaps doesn’t) in ways almost too awful to be imagined (but Michaelbrent succeeds in imagining them and making them gruesomely visual for readers, extending the description—quite justly, as it turns out—over a number of pages).
As one, the survivors become desperate to leave the end car and, after great pain and not a little bloodletting, they succeed. Then, when another of their number falls victim to an excruciating, bloody, and wholly unnerving attack, the survivors again seek sanctuary in the next car.
And the next.
And the next.
And echoes of The Bridge of San Luis Rey give way to hints of Poe’s magnificent parable, “The Masque of the Red Death.” Room by room, subway car by subway car, the characters move through a staged sequence of terrors—from the First Stop posted on a wall map to the Last Stop, which might mean redemption for the survivors…or utter damnation. There is no superficial, obvious connection to the Poe story—no vague awareness of color symbolism attached to the rooms, no ambiguous feeling of pseudo-oriental pageantry—but the sense of progression toward something final, something unanticipated permeates the middle portions of Darkbound. What waits in the final car? and who will live long enough to see it?
And then, my underlying concerns again shifted. Midway through Darkbound, Michaelbrent initiates a series of transformations/revelations that force us to review everything that has thus happened, to rethink our conclusions about the six passengers. Some of those assumptions alter only marginally; the first victim remains despicable and degraded, but inexorably, we understand that what happened to him—however horrible—was both fair and just.
From that point, characters undergo similar transformations and revelations, defining not who they seem to be but who they actually are. Is there justice in an unjust world? evolves into more fundamental questions: Is there a world beyond this? and if so, does it—can it—interact with this one?
And we become aware that the transformations/revelations of a film such as Sixth Sense are also at work in Darkbound. Beneath, and through, and all around the horrors—and there are many—are unimaginable levels of meaning and existence. This understanding should come as no surprise in a novel that begins, “Jim’s first indicator that he should have waited for the next subway was the skull driving the train”; but Michaelbrent nonetheless handles transmutations of setting, time, and character adroitly and effectively.
So what does Darkbound offer readers:
One part The Bridge of San Luis Rey, with its underlying questions about the essence of life and death;
One part “The Masque of the Red Death,” with its sense of inevitability and horrendous fatalism;
One part The Sixth Sense, with its evocation of things normally unseen and unseeable;
One part startling imagination that goes places most of us would never even approach in our worst nightmares;
And one part solid, crisp writing, focused on storytelling, promising much and delivering much.
Blend thoroughly…and you have Darkbound.
Michaelbrent Collings is my elder son, a #1 bestselling novelist and screenwriter, and the author of numerous bestsellers, including Darkbound, Apparition, The Haunted, The Loon, Rising Fears, and the bestselling YA fantasy series The Billy Saga, beginning with Billy: Messenger of Powers. I have published almost 450 reviews ranging across a dozen genres, as well as several bestselling novels of my own, so I hope no one will consider the preceding as nepotistic.