September 1, 2011, $5.95
Review by Darkeva
Writers often get the description of being at the mercy of their personal demons, usually alcoholism, drugs, smoking, gambling, and a host of other vices. Stephen King, although he remains one of the most revered titans in the horror genre, is no exception. He has freely discussed his battles with drug addiction, including cocaine, marijuana, and Valium, among others. His 1999 car accident wreaked significant physical and emotional damage on the author. He grew up without a father, and allegedly witnessed a childhood friend die after a train struck the boy.
Many people have speculated as to how King devised his grisly plots, and what went on in his head that inspired him to write such macabre fiction as Carrie, The Shining, and ‘Salem’s Lot. But more than anything, most writers marvelled at his success – it wasn’t long before Hollywood came calling and made adaptations of dozens of his works (and continues to). Many a fledgling wannabe scribe still wonders to this day how it must feel to have reached such a higher echelon of writerly existence. This desire represents what Jack Torrence wants most in Michael Emmett’s Demon.
Jack Torrence. If you’re wondering why that name seems familiar, it should, considering that it’s also the name of Stephen King’s protagonist, Jack Torrance, in The Shining. Emmett explains on the Demon website that this novel pays tribute to Stephen King and that Emmett received permission to use King’s characters’ names and the fictional places in the books that he’s written over the past few decades. Although he has borrowed some of the names and places from King, the plot is all Emmett’s.
Demon begins with Jack in a mental asylum, the decidedly unreliable narrator revealing to the reader that the erstwhile writer ended up the way he is for a reason. And through a well-structured framing narrative, we find out why – eventually. But to understand the whole story, we need to start from the beginning.
Jack used to be a reporter at the London Observer in Ohio, a job he loathes in a town he hates even more. He puts food on the table and tries to gain the credentials and connections he needs to become a full-time novelist like his idol, Steven Duke, a prolific and successful horror writer not unlike Stephen King. Although Jack is married and works to support his pregnant wife (although he learns to despise her and treats her despicably), he worships at the altar of Duke and writes him a long-winded letter asking him for advice on how he can become a horror writer just like his hero.
What’s interesting is that the common advice of “write what you know,” something many writers have dismissed in recent years, comes into play here, as who better to write from the point of view of a fictional horror writer than someone who writes horror in real life?
Emmett goes into great detail about Jack’s circumstances, describing his dire straits, not only because of the baby on the way, but because the pay at his reporter job is so poor that his wife has to work part-time at a bank and accept handouts from her concerned parents. And that just helps them get by.
Just as much character development shows in the secondary characters in Demon, a refreshing change especially when it comes to Nikki, Jack’s wife (who isn’t as innocent as she initially seems, but still doesn’t deserve what she suffers through because of Jack), as well as Miller, Jack’s boss. We also learn that Jack doesn’t have the best possible relationship with his dad, something that also complicates his desire to be a writer as he feels he still hasn’t proven himself to the one man who he claims to hate the most, but whose respect he secretly covets.
As Jack is about to give up hope that he’ll hear from Duke, he gets a letter response that burns him worse than any rejection letter ever could, because it tells him to give up now and not to pursue a career as a writer. To add insult to injury, Duke says, “write about something you know.” My sympathy, although difficult to give to Jack in the beginning as he’s not the nicest guy, shot up immediately after reading Duke’s response. All writers, not just of horror, bear a visceral darkness inside that feeds our fears and insecurities and makes us internalize that we’re not good enough or that if we ever met our idols, they would tell us we’re no good. That would crush anyone, writer or otherwise.
This infuriates Jack, who then makes it his goal to visit Duke in person, which he does, but not before nightmares begin to plague him at every turn, visions of a red-skinned demon jeering at him, taunting him, and steering him down a path from which there’s no return.
Duke reveals the reasons behind his ability to write so quickly and so well, which, you guessed it, point to a deal with a demon – Duke’s soul in exchange for a writer’s talent and creativity. But this isn’t just any demon – it is Legion, but this time, he isn’t many. He’s just one in Emmett’s tale – but he is one mean, nasty son of a bitch who has perfected how to manipulate people into making deals with him.
Instead of the experience knocking some sense into him, Jack dives deeper into his obsession, and demands to know how he can contact Legion, which leads him to Louisiana and a powerful voodoo queen, who explains the dangers of such a procedure, but reveals the way it works. Emmett clarifies that Legion is a black magic spirit, but to cause the kind of temporary possession that allows him to take over during writing sessions, he needs a voodoo ritual.
Although I believed Jack’s dangerous fixation and understood his motivations behind having come so far and wanting to find the answers to achieving success as a writer, even if it’s in the most twisted and suicidal way possible, I expected him to seek out the voodoo priestess to find out how to kill or destroy Legion, but sadly, Jack is too far-gone by this point and nothing will stand in his way of achieving this sinister union with Legion. When everything comes full circle and the reader finds out why Jack ended up the way he did, the novel serves as a powerful metaphor that I interpreted as a social commentary on the obsessive lengths that some people, writers in particular, are willing to forego – the sacrifices they’re willing to make, no matter how detrimental to their well-being or that of the friends and family around them – all in the name of “making it.”
The official tagline for the novel claims that there hasn’t been a scarier story since William Peter Blatty’s 1971 novel The Exorcist and the subsequent film adaptation it spawned in 1973, a tall order for any book to boast. The cover art by Matt Truiano certainly tries to achieve this with the red-faced, yellow-toothed representation of the demon in this book that boldly makes eye contact and stares at any who would dare read his tale. Although skilfully rendered, it doesn’t compare to the unforgettable face of the demon, Pazazu, in the first The Exorcist film that overwhelms the viewer like an abrupt tap on the shoulder, flashing in front of Father Karras as he sees his recently deceased mother emerging from a subway station.
But then, fear is also a subjective matter. The same things that scare me may be laughable to another person. Some consider The Exorcist to be genuinely frightening, and although I’m not of that camp now (although I once was, particularly because of Pazazu’s iconic face), I think that the strength of Emmett’s novel is in its message rather than a comparison to what most people consider one of the scariest works of fiction of all time.
Emmett deserves praise for a well-crafted tale that will hit home for horror writers (I know it certainly stayed with me longer than I thought it would). It’s disturbing in every sense of the word, and even though most readers will go into the novel with the expectation that it won’t scare them but rather, will provide them with an entertaining story (which it is), I would caution any writer, particularly aspiring horror writers, to be wary of this work. It has a haunting effect that may not set in right away, but chooses instead to sneak up behind you, and wrap a cold hand around your throat before whispering in your ear, “He’s waiting, writer. Legion is waiting.”