Michael Bray is making a name for himself in the world of horror and with good reason. He writes with the kind of fury a young Stephen King wrote with, a restless pace to his work that propels the reader on. It’s rather hard to identify how he achieves this pace: whether it’s economical style, the clipped dialogue, or just a kinetic energy which he has somehow imparted into the text. Whatever it is, it’s certainly still there in his latest offering The Dark Place, a story about a suburban avenue in America, where the lives of its inhabitants are turned upside down by the sudden manifestation of a mysterious sinkhole.
I’ll admit upfront I’m a fan of Michael Bray, and have been for some years, so perhaps I am giving him the benefit of the doubt when I say The Dark Place was good despite a host of problematic elements. The build up for the first 25% of the novel is pretty spellbinding, effortlessly introducing characters, giving us a clear and distinct sense of who they are seemingly with nothing more than a few brushstrokes. Michael Bray is a master at the quick character portrait and in generating empathetic personalities. I was immediately there with Embry, Adam, Jasmine and even the slightly clichéd military-man Clifton. Embry in particular is a wonderful examination of a man dying of cancer, with nothing to lose, refusing treatment, smoking a hundred cigarettes a day, torturing himself for reasons we suspect will become apparent later.
There is a wonderful intrigue which surrounds the Dark Place, as the sinkhole comes to be known. Why it manifested, what lies at its bottom, why people are so drawn to it, and what can be done to stop it. There are moments of real nauseous fear as the young boy, Adam, who seems to understand the Dark Place better than anyone, begins to interact with it in unique ways. Unfortunately, this mystery does not, at least for me, develop into anything too significant. We do get answers, but they are rather broad, failing to intimately tie into the character’s pasts. In addition, some of the suspense (again something Michael Bray is a master at) is ruined by the eventual explosion of action which dominates the middle section of the novel. There is a rather Hollywood series of action sequences: soldiers uselessly pouring bullets into a mysterious assailant, fighter jets bombing the hell out of the American city, bloodshed and death on a massive scale, etc, and I get the feeling from the prose that Bray was not as comfortable with this aspect as he is with the quieter horror he so effortlessly carries off in Shoebox, Whisper and numerous other works. There is a sense of cliché about it and a little bit of juvenility; I suppose it is partly a problem of expectation too. I was looking for deep horror and got a few bloodsplatters.
Towards the end of the novel, we get back to that quieter horror, diving deep into Embry’s past in a satisfying flashback. This is perhaps the strongest aspect of the novel for me where Bray really shows what he can do with just a dark room, an eight year old child’s mind and something hinted to be beyond human understanding. His prose changes markedly in these situations, becoming so sure-handed and clean, with an intensity that does make you think of King, although it is perhaps with a sadder, more damaged inflection. What follows this flashback is less satisfying. For me, the conclusion of The Dark Place was too on the nose, spelling out its themes and meaning with explicit dialogue. The confrontation between Embry and what lies at the bottom of the Dark Place was anticlimactic, predictable and frankly too brief to leave me with the catharsis I so desired and expected. Whilst the final image is quite powerful, and Bray pulls off an incredible risk (introducing a new character within pages of the end and somehow making it work on an emotional level), I couldn’t help but feel a little short-changed.
There were moments in The Dark Place which felt like they were taken directly from a Resident Evil game or The Evil Within, and while, for a fan of both of those, this was ok with me, I feel that for some it will be too ‘video-game’ to be enjoyable. At times Bray’s pace becomes disorientating; I wanted him to stop and give his characters more chance for reflection, more chance to interact with the darkness rather than just run from it or shoot at it. Still, I had to get to the end of the story, so one cannot fault his narrative drive.
Overall, I think Michael Bray is an immensely talented storyteller and certainly a name to keep watching. I feel at times he is hampered by his desire to give people what he thinks they want: action, explosions, the kinds of things we see in Hollywood cinema, where really what he is interested in and talented at are the moments where a world is quietly destroyed in a dark room. If he will focus more on the latter, I think we can expect to see some devastating novels from him in the future, but as for The Dark Place, it’s good for the diehard fans, but maybe not as your first Bray novel.
The Dark Place was published on Amazon and can be purchased via the below link:
Review by Joseph Sale
For more Book Reviews click here….