The World Fantasy Convention is typically held each year in late October or early November. You know, when it’s cold outside. This means, when it’s held in places higher up the globe from me like Canada or England, that it’s really cold outside. (Or at least colder than I'm used to). Yet one of the things I like about the World Fantasy Convention is that they give you free books. When you arrive at registration, and pick up your convention badge, they also hand you a bag of free books. That’s a bag of books that, most likely, you might never otherwise read. That’s not to say that the authors aren’t noteworthy, or the prose isn’t well written. It’s just a fact of life that one can never read all the books, or for that matter all the authors, that one would like to. So when someone places a stack of books in your hands, books that the publishers feel deserve a wider audience, it’s an open invitation to discover new authors. It's like the publishers are saying, "These stories are so great that you really need to read them." Sure, some of them may not be to your liking, but you never know. Who’s to say you won’t discover a new favorite author?
The organizers of the 2013 World Fantasy Convention continued this great book-giving tradition, and one of the novels I took up the challenge of reading was Darkness, Darkness by Peter Crowther. It’s a well-printed hardcover, with attractive cover art, and at 127 pages, promised to be an easy read. It’s a horror novel set in Jesman’s Bend, “affectionately known locally as the one-horse town to end them all.” There we meet Rick, a young man who, months ago, was involved in a fatal auto accident. While it wasn’t his fault, he’s still haunted by the crash, and hasn’t been able to drive since. Rick holds down the night shift at a local radio station, managed by his brother Geoff. His sister-in-law Melanie is the DJ. One day, around three a.m., Rick awakens from another nightmare involving the auto accident to discover that everyone else in the world seems to have disappeared. Or at least, everyone outside the radio station.
For a while, Melanie continues to play her music, an eclectic mix of easy listening. But no one calls in for requests, or just to talk with her, as per usual. Rick and Geoff make phone calls, but no one answers. Eventually, they go into town to investigate. They find crashed cars and half-eaten dinners, but no people. That evening, they load up on canned goods and lock down their radio station. They don’t know what’s happened, but they know it can’t be good.
Early the next morning, signs of life appear. A crashed car drives away. Those who disappeared are seen working on their cars. And yet, everything is different too. The vehicles drive without their lights on, even though it’s still pitch black outside. People they know walk around with sunglasses on, and their movements are slow and wooden, as if they are no longer familiar with their bodies. When the men go to town to investigate, their friends and neighbors attack them with slow, purposeful, and emotionless violence.
These people may sound like zombies, but they’re not mindless. As they pursue Rick and his brother, they gradually gain familiarity with how their limbs should move, and learn how to respond better to attack. And some of the cars they’ve worked on are now able to fly. When their dark glasses get knocked off, their eyes glow red, suggesting that they now see by infrared light. However, like zombies, these people seem intent on killing the living, which means that the men must flee back to the radio station, where Melanie awaits. Can they reach her alive, and before the townspeople arrive? And will they be safe inside its walls? These are the questions that drive the latter half of the novel.
Darkness, Darkness is a slim volume, and Crowther doesn’t answer all the questions he raises. But he creates an imaginative world, and populates it with vivid characters and fantastic (if horrific) situations. While it's too early to declare that I’ve found a new favorite author, I can say that I enjoyed reading his novel. Crowther packs his story with such a terrific punch that I might just have to seek out the second book in the series to learn what happens next. I’m glad I had a chance to read one of his stories. That happy experience might never have happened had I not attended this year’s World Fantasy Convention in Brighton, and had the organizers not continued the practice of including books in the price of membership.
Now, if only they could hold the convention earlier in the year. You know, when it’s warmer.