Author: Kevin J. Howard

Publisher: Outskirts Press

ISBN: 9781432794354

In Stephen King’s book-length study of the horror genre, Danse Macabre, he makes the observation that all horror stories work on two levels. The first is what he calls the “gross-out” – a mode that has dominated American horror – especially horror films – throughout the last generation (think of the nauseating spate of post-“Night of the Living Dead” cinematic spawns). The other level, King claims, involves a “moving, rhythmic search” for each reader’s (or viewer’s) most primitive fears, the soul-freezing concepts that give horror its heft. He notes that this level of horror “is not interested in the civilized furniture of our lives…it is in search of another place, a room which may sometimes resemble the secret den of a Victorian gentleman, sometimes the torture chamber of the Spanish inquisition, but perhaps more frequently and most successfully, the simple and brutally plain hole of a Stone Age cave dweller.”

That passage leapt into my mind as I was reading Kevin Howard’s entertaining and fast-paced horror novel Faithful Shadow. You see, Howard’s monster also emanates from a “simple and brutally plain hole” amid the otherwise awe-inspiring landscape of Yellowstone National Park. But through that barely-hidden hole on the surface exists a hellish cavern of gnawed bones and ossified flesh, home to a nameless and faceless monster that remains hidden even when it emerges. The beast is more shadow than substance, providing only a rare glimpse of what passes for its corporeal self: a glint of green eyes, a swipe of claw, a surreptitious, snarling snout.

Howard’s story is a variation of the wild-teenagers-lost-in-the-woods template that engendered dozens of pretty awful films in the 1980s and 1990s. But fortunately for the reader, the book usually rises above the limitations of that story model. In Howard’s version, a number of young people who are working summer jobs at the national park begin mysteriously disappearing, but the authorities don’t see it as anything other than a few wild kids going off on hedonistic adventures – no cause for undue alarm. Howard’s most successful creation, however, is the creature itself. This is no hook-handed revenger or mutant swamp monster. Howard’s monster is a thing of beauty in its ferocity and unpredictability. The author gives you just enough to imagine its glittering eyes and stealthy striding but not so much as to deprive you of the opportunity to use your own imagination. He winningly teases with some early scenes of the creature’s fury that are as puzzling to the reader as they are to the undaunted alcoholic Park Ranger whose fate it is to figure out just what he’s up against.

The writing is efficient and effective. The main character of the park ranger has a back story that keeps him from being a cliché – the once-noble but now broken-down man who’s getting by on fumes and contempt for his fellow man until he’s forced by fate to dig down deep to retrieve the goodness and bravery he once embodied. Howard finds several nice ways to humanize him, to make the reader care – even root for his success.

If the book has a weakness, it’s perhaps in the fairly bland characterization of the young people who comprise the summer help at the camp. I found it somewhat difficult to manufacture much interest in them. They’re not particularly memorable. We’ve got the good girl, the bad girl, the stud, the misfit, etc. Their disappearance doesn’t engender much more than a “hmm…too bad for them” response. In fact, as the novel proceeds, you are almost rooting for them to meet an untimely end because that means the return of a really cool monster who strikes without warning and manages some pretty impressive ways of dispatching its victims. Howard’s monster is a singular, terrifying creation. You’ll hate yourself for anxiously awaiting his every appearance in the book.

If it’s true, as Stephen King once said, that “We make up horrors to help us cope with the real ones,” Faithful Shadow will definitely help fans of horror fiction cope with anything real life can throw at them.

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