The Dark Game by Jonathan Janz

A quick look at the dates of the books I've reviewed will show that I don't care too much when something is published. Since I chiefly choose my reading matter based on recommendations from people I trust; especially my lady, I don't tend to bother with what the latest big thing in the fiction world is. Indeed, when so often I see books recommended primarily because of their "message", or "social themes'', or even because of the identity of the protagonist and/or author, rather than the quality of their storytelling, I sometimes find myself actively avoiding them, since for me, the central and first question of any author or any book would always be: "is it a good story?"

I was therefore very encouraged when I ran into Jonathan Janz, a modern writer whose clear goal is simply: Scare the bejaggers out of you!

Writing is a harsh mistress, from the endless rejections of first time writers, to the struggle of established authors trying to maintain an early success, nothing is harder than getting your work published. Yet, ten struggling writers have received the chance of a lifetime. A mysterious invitation to a writer's retreat held by none other than the handsome and reclusive Roderick Wells, one of the most successful authors in the business. One lucky writer will earn a prize of three million dollars, lucrative publishing contracts and a lifetime of success. However, as the contest begins, with blindfolded introductions, and Wells uncompromisingly nasty critique, it becomes clear that there is far more at stake here even than professional success. Since each of these ten writers has a secret, a secret which makes them vulnerable, and now they must play the Dark Game, Wells' sinister contest which pits all ten writers against each other in a duel of imagination and treachery, a game which can have only one winner.

Right from the start, The Dark Game had a premise which intrigued me. As an old school Doctor Who fan, I've always loved the base under siege story, a small group of characters trapped in an isolated location, being slowly picked off one by one as the tension steadily increases. This particularly holds true in stories where the characters are not just being stalked by a monster, but are actually participating in a game or contest, where there is some sinister force pitting the characters against each other. This is absolutely what Janz gives us here. Even the setting feels like something of a throwback, a large gothic manner surrounded by endless woods, with hanging chandeliers, French doors opening on a veranda and a woman in a long evening dress sweeping about the dark corridors with regal abandon. Indeed, Janz is not shy about sharing his inspirations and influences, referencing William Golding, Peter Straub, Shirley Jackson, and of course Stephen King throughout the text, particularly considering that the main task of the ten writers is to write a horror story.

The only slightly unfortunate aspect to the writing, was an occasional tendency to overdo the horrific language. For example, at one point moving from a genuinely spine tingling description of a demonic figure to telling us that his eyes "glowed like hell fire", given the clearly Stephen King inspired revelling in black humour, with some wonderfully hearty, terribly brutal bad guys and gory twists, this occasional tendency to overdo things stood out like an undead skeletal thumb.

On the plus side however, Janz doesn't skimp on the descriptions. Though not florid in his prose, I definitely appreciated the time taken to set the atmosphere, introduce mood and give us a real sense of place and personality without slowing down the action.

One of the things I enjoyed most about the writing is Janz' absolutely uncompromising unpleasantness! As a writer myself, Wells' brutal, harsh and no holds barred castigations of the ten writers are one of the nastiest parts of the book. Yet, this is just the tip of the iceberg, since from mood and attitude to death and mayhem, The Dark Game is the gift that keeps on cleaving.

Each of the ten writers are picked out in distinct detail, from their secrets, to their hopes, occasionally giving us snatches of their writing, which often set Wells' critiques into sharper relief. From Lucy Stille, once successful YA author now fallen on hard times and lacking confidence thanks to an arsehole of an agent, to the diffident Will Church, the haunted Rick Forester or the superficial Elaine Camocheck. It rapidly becomes clear that each of these writers has their own dark history, and has been called to the Wells' estate due to the secrets they possess, secrets which inform their writing, as well as their surroundings, and which often prove their undoing, indeed playing detective, guessing at the secrets and waiting for the different revelations is again something that adds still more to the mounting tension, wondering just who is to be trusted and who will snap.

Janz is also, not afraid to go to really unpleasant lengths when picking off his cast, and waiting to see whether it was their own secrets, their inability to keep up with Wells’ critiques, some paranormal aspect of the house, or indeed some of their own competitors who would do for each of the writers, made this one book where you could never predict what was coming next, or who would be up for the chop.

My one minor issue with the characters' history is that it seemed at one point Janz was following kKng in making them all involve some sexual peccadilloes, going from the nasty habits of two of the six men, to one of the women's issues with her abusive, philandering husband. This was entirely due to timing of the revelations, since Janz does manage to come up with a number of rather unique secrets for the writers to grapple with, however it might have been nice if the rather overblown sexual stuff was spread out a little more, especially given that several of the writers (including one of the nastiest characters), have secrets that are genuinely thought provoking, particularly when you are able to put together why someone's past has made them what they are.

Speaking of structure, when I found an interview with Janz, he mentioned that his writing technique involved writing a much longer work, then significantly pairing it down. On the one hand, this more than explains why The Dark Game's pace is one of its best features, indeed I almost compulsively read the twelve hours in two straight days. However, it also might explain why a number of things got lost in the mix. For example, when, earlier in the book the winner of one of Wells' previous contests arrives and tries to warn the writers to get out while they can, I assumed she'd have a larger part in the story than she actually did, especially with her earlier build up as a famous author who several characters admired. Similarly, while I didn't mind that some of the writers’ secrets were only revealed when said secrets (sometimes literally), came back to bite them in the proverbials. One character; Sharilyn Jackson, had a secret which served absolutely no purpose at all, indeed generally, Sharilyn was a sadly under developed character, for all that at the start of the book it seemed she'd be playing a pivotal role.

Another rather unfortunate issue with The Dark Game, is that, for all Janz takes time to introduce and explore all ten of his writers, it is rather blatantly obvious who are the principle male and female leads, and who are the supporting players. For Lucy this mattered less, since she is given a great deal to do and a complex history, however Rick Forrester, who should have had one of the most interesting pasts, remains simply the buff, laconic, good looking hero, fawned over by the female cast, whose secret (even though it’s setup for a rich exploration), plays a comparatively small part in the conclusion.

Unfortunately, even though I devoured the book, and that the pacing, murders, character of the writing and atmosphere were for the most part excellent, the ending rather let matters down.

Lucy, for all she'd been pretty fantastic at coping with the nasty things throughout the book, gets herself severely damselled and in need of rescue, while the strong and silent Rick rushes to save her.

Indeed, given that Rick and Lucy's connection during the book goes from amicable strangers, through one paragraph describing a night of them talking, to instant romance and torrid lovemaking, with probably more time spent on the sex than the night of falling in love, this is one aspect of the quick pacing which likely should have been slowed, or even missed out entirely. Indeed, while I generally enjoy romance in fiction, here it felt very much as if the romance was just there to turn Lucy into rescue bait and Rick into a blatant hero to provide the impetus for the book’s climax.

Whilst the evil is defeated, the defeat involves a change of loyalty in a character who again, we've literally only seen twice before, making their motivations extremely murky. Indeed, to say that throughout most of the book, it was rather hard to guess who would die and when, the ending ultimately felt surprisingly safe, and more than a little trite.

It also didn't help that Janz's occasional tendency to overblown descriptions transformed what should have been an epically weird confrontation with extra dimensional evil, into simply a fancy light show.

Though the epilogue, and an ironic twist of fate were nicely delivered, at the same time, the climax did leave something of a bad taste, since it did feel rather that the evil was defeated more because it was time for that to happen, than due to any weakness on the villain's part or any actions by the heroes. Rather ironically, earlier on in the novel Wells' discusses how important villains are to horror novels, and how a villain must be seemingly undefeatable, which seems to be very much what happened with the villain here.

For all that the less than subtle ending, dangling threads and occasionally undeveloped plots left something of a sour taste, for most of the book I was absolutely hooked, literally unable to put the book down since I was so eager to see what was coming; and who was dying, next.

The Dark Game is the quintessential horror novel. It has gore galore, tension in spades, and more than enough kinds of nasty to satisfy the most avid horror fan. While the few pieces missing stop it short of quite being up there with the masters, it's certainly a wild and scary ride, and one which is absolutely worth taking. So, for anyone who thought back wistfully to James Herbert, John Saul or Graham Masterton, and wondered "are they still writing books like that these days?", I can most assuredly say: Hell yes!

9/10 Ten little writers standing in a line, one got mangled and then there were nine

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