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Onyx reviews: Ghost Road Blues by Jonathan Maberry

Ghost Road Blues is the debut novel by Jonathan Maberry, and it might help to know going into this lengthy book that it is the first volume of a trilogy. That way, when you get to within a handful of pages of the ending, you won't be scratching your head in wonder at how he can possibly tie up all the loose ends in such little time. It is a complex, multi-threaded tale that is essentially a long setup for the next two volumes.

The book starts with a sucker punch that might be seen as a cheap trick, but it helps set the stage and tone for what lies ahead. Pine Deep, PA thrives on its reputation as the most haunted town in America, and Halloween is the centerpiece of its annual tourist trade.

Which explains why town officials are distraught when a trio of drug-dealing murderers are reported on the loose in the vicinity at the end of September. Pine Deep doesn't need the bad publicity to scare away the annual influx of visitors. It's bad enough that many of the staple crops are affected by blight and some longtime residents may feel the bite of bank foreclosure before the end of the year.

In fact, the way the year is going reminds some of the older residents of the dark time thirty years earlier when a serial killer went on a horrific rampage at the same time as the previous catastrophic crop failure. A lynch mob took care of the man suspected of being responsible for that reign of terror-but they don't know that the black man they executed had just finished dispatching the real killer, a shape-shifting creature who lived among the townspeople under the name of Ubel Griswold. The Bone Man impaled the killer with his blues guitar and hid the body in a festering swamp.

As Maberry tells readers over and over again: Evil doesn't die. "It waits, it changes and it comes back."

Not everything evil in Pine Deep is supernatural, though. Among the denizens of this community are cheats, villains, abusers and fanatics. And the miscreants reported in the vicinity are just as scary as anything the bogs and fens around Pine Deep can regurgitate, especially ringleader Karl Ruger, who is reputed to be responsible for a horrifically violent murder spree in Cape May. Once Ruger and his cohorts arrive in town, the story becomes vaguely reminiscent of In Cold Blood.

For all his reputation, though, Ruger is just another extension of "the Man," Ubel Griswold, who is preparing to wreak havoc on Pine Deep during its busiest hour. On the side of Good stands Malcolm Crow, a former police officer and recovering alcoholic who now runs the local Halloween shop and is responsible for the sophisticated Haunted Hayride that draws people from all over, young "Iron" Mike Sweeney, a victim of child abuse and somehow related to Ubel Griswold, town mayor Terry Wolfe, who pops Xanax and tries his best to ignore the ghost of his younger sister, one of Griswold's long-ago victims, and the Bone Man, regenerated from the dead. Everyone's lives and characters were altered by the long summer of thirty years past.

Evil has its fair share of pawns among the populace, too. Foremost is Vic Wingate, Mike's abusive stepfather, and Tow-Truck Eddie, who believes he is serving God. Many of these pawns are survivors of the lynch mob that took care of the Bone Man all those years ago.

Maberry's prose is filled with fresh and thought-provoking figures of speech. Some the turns of phrase are so intriguing that they draw attention to themselves at first. However, since they aren't gimmicky turns of flashy writing, the story and characterization quickly take the reader's attention away from these fundamental building blocks of the novel.

Ghost Road Blues has no shortage of scares and thrills-since the author has an insider's knowledge of martial arts his fight scenes are particularly well created, especially from the point of view of the pain certain things inflict on the fighters-and it does a yeoman's job of establishing the characters and their relationships, but it ends after nearly five hundred pages at a point where everyone seems worse off than at the beginning. While they may be in relatively safe places for the time being, it's clear to readers that the future holds more grief and turbulence for their lives and relationships. 

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