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Note: This review features mild plot spoilers — read at your own risk, but I promise not to ruin the ending for you.
Brian James Freeman’s THE PAINTED DARKNESS is a new horror novel being issued by the prestigious small press Cemetery Dance Publications.  Though I would describe it as “horror,” it’s largely a character study and a piece of psychological horror, certainly not gory by any means, and shouldn’t turn off even the most squeamish.
THE PAINTED DARKNESS alternates between chapters about the protagonist, Henry, as a boy and as a grown man.  Henry was a solitary child with an over-active imagination who spent a great deal of time alone in the woods behind his home (this describes my own childhood, which is what drew me to the book).  As an adult, Henry has become an artist, and is married with a child, though it rapidly becomes clear that he suffered tragedy in his childhood and has a troubled life as a married father.  Henry (almost literally) is wrestling with inner demons that threaten to destroy his fragile life and perhaps even his sanity.  Through the chapters on Henry’s childhood, we gradually see how Henry has arrived in this precarious position.
I thought the storyline and characterization of the protagonist as a boy were especially effective and well-done.  I’d actually like to see Freeman do more horror with child protagonists, as he clearly has an ear for children’s dialogue and a good sense of how children perceive the world.  Freeman’s writing style is casual and free-flowing, never jarring.  It’s clear that he’s an excellent writer and has a great future ahead of him.  I couldn’t help but be reminded of some of Stephen King’s early works as I read THE PAINTED DARKNESS and I look forward to reading more of Freeman’s work.
The book is a slim volume, around 170 pages of large print with some full-page line drawings.  It also includes an introduction by Brian Keene who discusses Brian James Freeman’s work.  I found this to be a useful piece as Freeman is an author with whom I was not previously acquainted.  In some ways, I thought the story’s length worked against it: the adult protagonist wasn’t as fleshed out as we might have liked, so might have worked better as a longer piece, but to be honest, the story’s plot is pretty straight-forward, so it might have had more “punch” as a shorter work.
Please note that I am reviewing a trade paperback advance reader’s copy of a hardback release by Cemetery Dance and my copy includes several black and white line drawings (I don’t know if these will be printed in color or otherwise appear differently in the hardback).  The drawings are fine – not great, not terrible, and while they don’t add much, they don’t detract either.  The book would have been fine without them.
All in all, I enjoyed THE PAINTED DARKNESS, and it was certainly a quick read, but it’s a fairly simple story and without the final chapter that wraps everything up, it would have been disappointing.  Freeman is clearly a talented writer, and while I thought this particular story was a little thin to be considered a “masterpiece,” I think he’s definitely an author to watch.  I give THE PAINTED DARKNESS 3.5 stars out of 5.
Full disclosure: I received a complimentary copy of this book through the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program in exchange for a review. This has not influenced my review in any way.
Review copyright 2010 J. Andrew Byers