KILLER follows SMALL CRIMES and PARIAH, and the three pack a good dose of nightmare as well as darkness. But it's wise to reserve the word "horror" for the next Dave Zeltserman novel, THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD, his true horror offering of the year. If you're putting in a garden or have ever been awestruck and a little creeped out by how rapidly and voraciously the weeds can grow -- think rainforest, think Scott Smith's THE RUINS -- then THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD is going to ride those images right into your subconscious. At least, it has for me, as well as for Publisher's Weekly and Booklist, both of which call the new work "superb."
The novel starts as a classic New England piece: Jack Durkin is complaining about breakfast, which is corn flakes for the twenty-third day in a row. His wife Lydia is trying to make a point: "Get a job that pays money," she nags, and then maybe you'll earn a good breakfast.
Actually Durkin is being paid a modest stipend plus free rent on his home, and Lydia isn't nearly as broke in terms of groceries as she's pretending ... but it's true that the honorarium for Jack's work looks pretty small after inflation, since it was established generations ago and the town isn't interested in raising the payment. In fact, most of the town, like Jack's wife Lydia, has forgotten what exactly Jack is being paid for. He says, "I spend every day saving the world, and don't you forget it!"
But what's the truth about Jack's work? He's been pulling weeds called Aukowies from Lorne Field, and burning them, for the sake of saving the planet, literally. To hear Jack tell it, those weeds can think -- and they hunger for human flesh and their chance to take over. Just a few days of neglect from the weeding, and the ultimate disaster could erupt for the world. Jack mulls it over:
He could teach them all a lesson. If he bought a bus ticket, he could be in California in three days. Probably take eight, maybe nine days for the Aukowies to mature, another week or so for them to ravage the land and make their way to the west coast. That's give him more than two weeks of peace and quiet. Two weeks without some raisin-faced shrew picking the flesh off his tired old carcass. Two weeks without his ungrateful boys rolling their eyes and smirking at him. Best of all, two weeks without any condescending looks from those townsfolk as he walked past them. Oh boy, would that teach them! Let them see how funny their jokes were when Aukowies shred them into mincemeat! Of course the Aukowies would get his wife and boys first, not only because they were closest but 'cause of the grudge they held against him. They'd make 'em suffer. Probably take their time too, at least as much as an Aukowie could.Bottom line, though, is that Jack does care about his wife and sons, and even more, he cares about the family honor and obligation to keep on deferring the end of the world through this painful daily labor in the field. And when the town's powerful newcomers, who have no reason to believe in Jack's mythically crucial assignment, decide to undo the "covenant" binding them to respect his work, it's a terrible shock to him.
Zeltserman excels in telling the tale from Jack's point of view, just as he does when he's inside the screwed up brains of a serial killer. It's clear what Jack sees and believes. But the haunting suspicion that maybe Jack is crazy can't be avoided. And the only way to know for sure seems to be if Jack fails in his daily efforts to kill the growing, hungry, malicious weeds. They may even be smart enough to fool others who confront them. Or is it that Jack himself is a menace?
Comparisons with Stephen King's horror novels are inevitable, and this fine writer is surely as good. Zeltserman packs his tale densely, though, so that instead of a massive volume, THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD is a novella, where each paragraph bites more deeply into the New England ethos of hard work and caring for the community's future -- as well as into Jack's personality and the raw mockery of the townspeople. Are there no allies for Jack in all this? Will his own sons add to the menace attacking him?
Readers of other books by this wonderfully twisted author know there's going to be a moment that turns Jack's inner and outer worlds upside-down. CARETAKER provides a blackly funny bite that's irresistible. And it may send you out to weed your garden, more determinedly than ever -- and with an edge of uneasiness in whether that little patch of heaven might have an inner core that's not so pretty after all. Is green the best color after all??
Thanks, Dave, for another wild ride and great read.
SPECIAL NOTE FOR NEW ENGLAND FOLKS: Dave Zeltserman visits Kingdom Books at 2 p.m. on Saturday June 19. He'll introduce both KILLER and THE CARETAKER OF LORNE FIELD. And we have plenty of copies of KILLER and of its two predecessors, SMALL CRIMES and PARIAH. But because CARETAKER won't yet be available -- it comes out in hardcover in August -- its publisher, Overlook, has generously agreed to provide some "advance reading copies" for people attending this event. We'll draw names to determine who receives these free copies. Let us know if you're coming!