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I’m a fan of horror – H. P. Lovecraft’s work holds a special place in my heart, as does Stephen King’s work through the mid-1990s – though I don’t read enough of the fine horror novels and stories that have been produced in the last decade or so. I was familiar with Michael R. Collings’ science fiction work (see my previous reviews here and here), but I wasn’t sure what to expect when I read one of his horror novels. I was thus almost astonished to find out how much I enjoyed STATIC!, one of his horror novels.

Please note: some plot spoilers follow, though I don’t plan to wreck every twist and turn in the novel.

Nick Wheeler is a graduate student slaving away on his Ph.D. in English. Like all such poor, lost souls, he needs an inexpensive residence where he can spend his waking hours reading, writing, and grading papers. He ends up renting a cottage on the grounds of a larger home in an obscure suburb of Los Angels, Tamarind Valley, owned by an extremely eccentric old woman he only rarely even catches glimpses of. The lady dies and her great-nephew, Payne Gunnison, inherits the home. Nick and Payne become friends and they discover that the house Payne has inherited holds a number of mysteries. For an old lady who never seemed to leave the house, it contains an up-to-date videotape and DVD collection, plus every room is wired with state-of-the-art audio and video equipment. Some of the tapes contain shocking footage of graphic sex and violence. And gradually, Payne discovers that the house and its films seem to be changing his own personality, urging him to do things he otherwise would not….

There are points, especially in the first half (which I found marginally stronger than the second), where I’d almost have sworn I was reading a Stephen King novel. I mean that in the best possible way, as I’m a fan of King’s and think there are few better modern American storytellers. Had STATIC! replaced a few of the literary and film references (which were just a tad metatextual for my liking at times) with pop cultural references and been just a bit more profane, I think we’d have something very much like King’s work.

The novel’s beginning was particularly strong, and the character of Nick Wheeler was especially well-developed. I actually liked Nick quite a bit better than Payne and wished that Nick hadn’t become something of a secondary character in the final third of the book. (It probably helps that I am finishing my doctorate and am entirely sympathetic to Nick’s situation.) Indeed, if there could have been a way to write Payne out of the story entirely and have the events of the book befall Nick, I’d have been happier. But these are quibbles where I am essentially asking for a second piece of a pie I enjoyed.

There is strong element of sexual tension throughout, on multiple levels, though I don’t want to spoiler the work further by elaborating too much on what I mean by that, as it’s one of the more interesting elements of the novel. Frankly, I’d have liked to see that element played up more. There was certainly room to explore that dimension of the plot further.

Here is one lingering question I had about the story (and this will only make sense to you if you’ve already read the book, but I’ll note it here for those of you reading this who have): am I imagining things, or was it (strongly?) implied that The Greer was not really the old woman she seemed to be? Is it possible that her body had been inhabited by an old (gay?) scientist who had originally discovered the process for electronic transfer of consciousness? That would certainly explain some of the dark (same-sex) elements of sexuality in the story. I may be imagining things here, and this crazy idea may say more about me than any backstory intended by its author, so take this comment with a grain of salt.

This is a very, very minor quibble, but I’m not hog wild about the title. That exclamation point bothers me for some reason I can’t quite articulate, though if the title had just been STATIC, I don’t think that would have worked terribly well either, as that just reminds me of a second-rate Dean Koontz kind of title. I don’t have a constructive comment here, just that perhaps a different title could have helped the novel attract more attention.

It wasn’t until after I finished reading STATIC! that I realized that it is part of a loose sequence of horror novels set in the suburban (fictional) Tamarind Valley outside Los Angeles. I very much appreciate that Collings has set out to create his own unique horror setting, as so many others have (e.g., Lovecraft’s Arkham, Innsmouth, and Dunwich; King’s Derry, Castle Rock, Jerusalem’s Lot, etc.). Now that I know a little more about Tamarind Valley and its dark history – having just read another work set in Tamarind Valley – I wish those elements had been played up just a tad more.

I give this one a strong 4.5 stars out of five. The first half of the book is especially strong. Had there been a little more explanation of the backstory and perhaps an ending that offered a more ominous twist, or more of a hook for a follow-on, I’d have rated it a bit higher. Collings is a gifted storyteller, and I only regret that his work is not better known. The whole “I couldn’t put this book down” thing is a bit of a cliché, but STATIC! really captured my interest and I recommend it highly.

Review copyright 2012 J. Andrew Byers