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Stephen Laws

Hodder & Stoughton 1999

UK Hardcover First

ISBN 0-450-60692-9

$35.95; UK hard cover; 488 pages

Reviewed by Rick Kleffel





The horror novels of recent years have been many things -- graphic, restrained, realistic, fantastic, over-the-top, understated, feminist, misogynistic, you name it -- but have never achieved the same mixture of innocence and cheerful ooze that characterizes horror movies from the 1950's. Stephen Laws' latest novel, 'Daemonic' achieves just that effect and more. Like Jack Draegerman, the novel's nemesis, he uses the structure, look and feel of fifties horror movies, but hides some nasty modern special effects inside a complex labyrinth filled with cleverly-staged set pieces. The result is a page-turning work of fiction that subtly spoofs the very structures it uses so effectively.

The structure of the work is anything but subtle. 'Daemonic' begins with a series of scenes in which average folks are offered a huge sum of money to come to the Rock, a giant, forbidding skyscraper built by Jack Draegerman, a reclusive billionaire, in the heart of a crime-filled inner city. Draegerman is something of a cross between Howard Hughes and Roger Corman, a rich man who once dabbled in cheap horror movies. Those who don't accept his invitation are kidnapped by stone-faced thugs in elegant black suits. In short order, they end up in Draegerman's Rock, which is not the ultra-modern office building one would assume it to be, but instead a dark, dank castle filled with twisting stone corridors, moving walls, and, of course, hideous monsters. Draegerman, the consummate deal-maker, has finally struck a bargain with something horrible, something unearthly, something -- Daemonic! He intends that his 'guests' become the main course for his loathsome visitors, and sets them off in search of a final exit from the complicated maze he's constructed with his billions.

What they find within are a series of well-written, beautifully described 'set pieces' based on black and white horror movies from the 1950's, lovingly re-done in full color, ooey-gooey 1990's horror prose. In these set pieces, Laws shows off his skills as a writer. His descriptions of the special sets inside the Rock are precise and easily visualized, his characters are clear-cut and their reactions are unpredictably human. But most importantly, he's able to inject a sly humor into scenes of action and terror, which pretty much don't let up for the entire novel.

"'Apply logic? To what we saw back there?'

'Yeah! Our own logic! Like, for instance -- we don't know what it was, but it's no fucking good telling ourselves that something like that can't exist. Because it does...It also took two full clips of nine millimetre shells, and didn't like it. So, the logic? If there's one thing like that in there, there might be others. And if there are others, make sure you're gun is primed...'"

Laws does something pretty difficult in 'Daemonic'. He manages to simultaneously salute, send up, effectively use and improve upon the cliches from 1950's horror movies in a 1990 horror novel. He uncovers an urban myth in the making outside the Rock, and his castle of terror is every bit as complex as the wonderfully baroque illustration on the dust jacket. He combines high-tech machinery and supernatural forces, and applies the same logical extrapolations to each. 'Daemonic' is a complex combination of subtle thought and over-the-top horror, a crowd-pleaser, a perfect B-movie rendered with consummate skill as a high-class piece of writing.