Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Afraid by J.A. Konrath writing as Jack Kilborn (horror)

This review was originally published in somewhat different form on Page Horrific. Copyright 2010. For the cleaner, tighter — and therefore better — version (approx. 225 words), go there.

Safe Haven, Wisconsin, was not named ironically. It only seems that way since the five strangers came to town: Bernie, Taylor, Santiago, Logan, and Ajax. They only want some information ("Where is Warren?"), but they're eager to torture, mutilate, and murder to get it.

They were trained for this work by the military, in fact. The thing is, they like their work a little too much, and they'll never kill outright when there's still some excruciating pain left to deal out. As their leader states, they're "Hannibal Lecters with Rambo training."

Afraid was the first pure horror novel from author Jack Kilborn (better known as J.A. Konrath for writing the Jacqueline "Jack" Daniels series of mysteries — as well as for making a bundle of money off selling his books electronically).

Konrath has dealt with disturbing subject matter before in the Daniels series, but in Afraid he takes it so far, that writing under the Kilborn pseudonym was necessary to protect unsuspecting buyers from being inadvertently traumatized.

Afraid is a remarkably imaginative collection of disturbing ideas and disturbed villains. The novel begins with the explosion of a helicopter, and it is filled with horrific high points that include the townwide lottery giveaway, Sheriff Ace Streng's bear-trap ordeal, the secret film, and the very concept of Red-ops. (The anticipation of Warren's appearance rivals that of Harry Lime in The Third Man.)

As Kilborn, Konrath shows no remorse with his characters, throwing them up against one thing after another like contestants on some psychotic game show. Afraid is very visual in style, so reading it is somewhat akin to watching a horror movie in your head — one that's actually frightening.

At the same time, Kilborn knows that a good scary story needs some humor to lighten the mood a little bit — and subsequently make it even scarier. He's more than up to the challenge. If you remember way back when "horror" meant "terrifying" and not just "gross," treat yourself and read Afraid.

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