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Stephen Laws


UK Trade Paperback Re-Issue First

ISBN 1-903-88972-3

Publication Date: 10-23-2003

272 Pages; £9.99

Date Reviewed: 01-22-04

Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2004





Returning to the scene of the crime. Revisiting the sylvan fields of your youth. Indulging in nostalgia for the past. No matter what you call it, no matter how you do it, it's a dangerous business. You might get caught. You could never return. The past may seem pallid or the present pale in comparison to the past. A trap is a trap, and if you decide to step into the snare, you should prepare for the snap. The effect of the past upon the present, our inability to escape the past in the present, is a constant theme in both mystery and horror fiction. Both genres have been around long enough so that we can now experience this theme on two levels. Readers can engage in nostalgic re-reading of novels in which nostalgia itself proves to be a noose.

It helps to have a compelling reason to re-read a novel, and Telos offers up several in its Telos Classic re-issue of Stephen Laws' 'Spectre'. The new version is in fact pretty much Laws' original version, as submitted to his then-publisher, Souvenir Press, nearly 20 years ago. This means that an opening chapter has been restored, and several scenes elided from the original version have been restored. Long available only as a mass-market paperback with a cover garish enough to scare away even the hardy, Telos offers 'Spectre' as a nicely printed trade paperback with new cover, and as a limited edition hardcover. The hardcover includes four color plates featuring covers from the German, French and Italian editions. Both new versions feature Laws' original postscript and a new one written for this edition, with a nostalgic photo of the author standing in front of the theater that inspired the novel in 1986, shortly after the original publication. The Telos edition of 'Spectre' is the written version of a director's cut extended-version DVD with additional commentary tracks and a photo gallery.

As we approach middle age, we spend more and more time thinking about the past. It's not surprising. There's more of it to think of. Richard Eden is a school lecturer with few roots in the present. Newly divorced from his wife, he spends his spare time drinking at the local bar, the Imperial nightclub, brooding about the past. He's especially fond of his halcyon college days, when he and six friends came together to form the Byker Chapter. (Byker is a neighborhood in Laws' --and his characters' -- stomping ground of Newscastle-Upon-Tyne.) Six boys, one girl, their friendship was a bond that kept them strong through school. But when they left, they drifted apart. On his way home from the Imperial one night, Richard experiences a moment of paranoid terror, convinced someone, something is following him. When he arrives home, still mooning, he digs out a photograph of the Byker Chapter. But it's no longer the same photo it once was; one of the boys has now vanished from the picture. Soon he finds out the missing now adult boy he once knew has just been horrifically murdered in his apartment. It's the first of many mysteries that will lead Eden to confront the totality of the past.

The problem with nostalgic visions of the past is that they are incomplete. We self-edit the memories that aren't pleasant and re-construct the past without them. Laws is quite clever at constructing his horror story. Rather than reveal in the opening precisely what is doing the killing and why, he shows us only the outward effects, and leaves the monster behind the curtain. He's also quite inventive in creating his inimical force. It's not precisely anything you've seen before. But it is clearly tied to the characters, to what happened in the past. As more members of the Byker Chapter die violent deaths -- and their images fade from the hallowed picture -- it becomes necessary to unearth the past in all its ugly glory. It proves to be uglier than most would care to imagine.

Laws' story is taut, stripped down and relentless. He moves the action along briskly. His storyline is constructed so that the action consists of getting to know the characters in the past as they are threatened in the present. It's an effective combination. The first two-thirds of the novel are almost a hybrid of mystery and horror, as the characters become amateur sleuths unearthing their own past while being pursued by a variety of supernatural threats. The final third of the novel reveals the evil and resolves the past -- for those who survive.

Though the novel is set -- and was written -- in the 1980's, Laws has done a great job of polishing it so that the setting can remain the same without intruding on the reader's sensibilities. The additions, which he describes in the second postscript, make the novel tighter and more frightening. Read the second time around, the finale suffers on two counts. It would be hard for it to be as effective as what precedes it, and it isn't. Furthermore, it suffers from familiarity, because it's been replicated both in earnest and in parody many times since the original publication. Countering that familiarity is the originality of Laws' monster. Though he draws on a lot of classic influences, he's ingeniously combined them into something both frightening and entertaining.

In the 1980's, horror moved from being a small and mostly sneered-at genre to a mainstream staple, and by the end of that decade had returned to being a small and mostly sneered-at genre, with a few bestselling exceptions. The re-issue of Stephen Laws' 'Spectre' allows the readers who missed Laws' novel the first time around, and those who read it upon its original publication to experience it -- and 1980's mainstream horror -- in an improved form. It also offers lessons on two levels -- both within the novel and in the reading experience itself -- on the dangers of revisiting the past.