By William F. Nolan
Darkwood Press, $17.99, 303 pages
REVIEWED BY JAMES E. PERSON JR.
Best known as the author of the futuristic fantasy "Logan's Run" (1967) and a celebrated biography of detective writer Dashiell Hammett (1983), William F. Nolan is widely respected as a writer of dark works that explore the fears that lurk in the sleepless mind during the witching hour: Those horrible what-ifs. What if the undead really do return to exact vengeance for hurts received during life? What if the creatures we view in horror movies — werewolves, vampires, succubi — actually exist?
In his latest collection, "Nightshadows," Mr. Nolan explores that very world in 22 short stories and one novella. These works have as their milieu the modern world, where people live their daily lives on the inherited bank and capital of a religious faith that exists feebly or not at all, but where violent passions and demonic creatures hold sway.
Imagine the awe-informed vision of Ray Bradbury combined with a dash of Stephen King's nihilism, and there you have the twilit world of "Nightshadows." A strong influence of Mr. Nolan's work, Mr. Bradbury has declared himself "terrified, delighted, and truly moved" by it, while Mr. King has described Mr. Nolan as "an expert in the art and science of scaring the hell out of people."
"Horror fiction is one of our earliest forms of literature, and will always be with us," claims Mr. Nolan in his introduction. Many of the stories amply illustrate why horror fiction remains a living form.
The highlights of the collection include "Dark Return," "Year of the Witch," "The Tragic Narrative of Arthur Bedford Addison" and "Behind the Curtain," as well as the longer work, "Ripper!"
"Dark Return" explores a fascinating theme of being caught up in a wrinkle in time and meeting one's older or younger self — and the consequences of that meeting. This theme has been tackled in short fiction by Mr. Bradbury ("A Touch of Petulance") and Russell Kirk ("An Encounter by Mortstone Pond"), among other writers, with strong effect, and Mr. Nolan does not disappoint. He pulls the reader into the nightmare world discovered by his sympathetic protagonist, creates a suffocating sense of impending doom and makes a demon from the infernal realms a key character.
"Year of the Witch" is told by an earnest small-town boy, and it might have come straight out of Mr. Bradbury's "Dandelion Wine." This simple story describes the narrator's visit to his town's resident haunted house alongside his buddies Don and Jack, and the wraith they disturbed on the night of their adventure.
Mr. Nolan writes, "A week later things started going bad. Don's parents received a letter from Illinois telling how Don's grandpa, on his mom's side, had fallen into the town ravine in Waukegan and died of a heart attack." Waukegan, Ill., is Mr. Bradbury's hometown, and the city's famous ravine is the setting of the Master's most terrifying story from "Dandelion Wine," "The Whole Town's Sleeping."
Set on a far-away planet after the demise of Earth, "Arthur Bedford Addison" is a study in loneliness, possessiveness and psychosis at a lonely lighthouse on the shoulder of a treacherous landform. This tale originated as Mr. Nolan's contribution to a fairly recent anthology of stories by many hands, each designed to retell and provide a workable ending to Edgar Allan Poe's unfinished story "The Lighthouse." Although set in a time and place foreign to the mind of Poe, Mr. Nolan's story is entirely in keeping with the brooding, gloomy form and imagination of America's first horror master.
"Behind the Curtain" tells of a man's unnerving stay in a hospital over the course of several nights, speaking with an eerie, unseen patient in the next bed. The opening paragraph is splendid, enticing: "The city at night. Dark. Menacing. Dangerous. I've always equated a big city with a fatal disease: it can eat you alive. Muggings in dark alleys. Stoned teenage punks ready to cut your throat for the price of a fix. Serial killers on the prowl for fresh victims. I've never been mugged, or had my throat cut, or been stalked by a serial killer — but on one dark, rainswept Friday night the city finally nailed me."
"Ripper!" has "screenplay in the making" written all over it. It concerns England's most notorious and mysterious serial killer, who haunted London's Whitechapel district in 1888 and then abruptly disappeared from history. Mr. Nolan deftly ties the fate of Jack the Ripper to that of London Bridge — which was taken apart and moved, stone by stone, to Lake Havasu City, Arizona a generation ago. When abductions and slasher-killings break out near the rebuilt bridge, police detective Steve Gregory sifts the clues, discerns the shocking truth and races against time and resistance from the publicity-focused mayor's office to find and stop the Ripper once and for all.
Not all Mr. Nolan's stories achieve the high quality of the ones just described, though all are skillfully written and worth the reader's attention. The reader might find it more profitable to refrain from reading the annotations with which the author has prefaced his stories until the end, for some of them include spoilers.
These otherwise-engaging stories would have benefited from one last round of proofreading. After becoming engrossed in a story, it is disconcerting to stumble over a reference to a World War II fighter pilot who shot down "eight Nazi plans," or a character claiming he has fallen in love for "the fist time in my whole life."
To undertake stories in the realm of dark fantasy is easy, but to do it well is a gift — and the author performs with flair. Reading "Nightshadows" validates the late Rod Serling's claim that Mr. Nolan's fiction "is wonderfully wild, fascinating, beautifully written." Here are stories that voyage into the mist-shrouded shipping lanes of the mind where many readers fear to venture.
James E. Person Jr. is the author of "Earl Hamner: From Walton's Mountain to Tomorrow" (Cumberland House).