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
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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