The Dark Game by Jonathan Janz
Publisher: Flame Tree Press | Release Date: April 11, 2019 | Pages: 352 pages
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
I have to admit up front that I have a certain fondness for horror books about authors whose literary creations come alive. One of my favorites, of course, is Stephen King’s The Dark Half, and I’m pretty sure Dean Koontz wrote something along these lines as well, but I’ll be damned if I can recall the title (or maybe I’m just getting hit with a serious case of Mandela Effect). The Dark Game, a brand-new release unleashed amidst Flame Tree Press’s unofficial Year of Janz reissues, toils in the topics of writers and their creations, and the perils of writing horror villains that are a little too realistic.
Ten writers have been hand-selected by the reclusive but highly regarded literary legend Roderick Wells to take part in a competition. The prize — three million dollars and a guaranteed best-seller status that will likely have the winner set for life. The secret catch? That one writer has to write well enough, and live long enough, to win.
On the topic of writing, The Dark Game may be Janz’s most thematically rich title to date, and the author is afforded plenty of page space to muse on the merits of an author’s legacy, their immortal creations, the various ways in which writers bleed upon the page, and the lessons learned and passed down from one author to another. After being tasked with writing a horror novel for Wells, Lucy confides in Rick (our central protagonists here) that she’s afraid of failing. Her debut book was a hit, her second less so. Rick asks if she’s ever heard of horror author Jack Ketchum, and imparts upon her the sage advice that was shared with him by the man himself: “Fuck fear.” Write bravely. Get those words down on the page.
I suspect this was advice Janz learned first-hand and is sharing with us through Rick. We get various other nuggets along the way, as Janz shares other tidbits of advice through his characters. Wells philosophizes over the nature of villains and reminds his group of authors, “You mustn’t allow the audience to know what he will do, yet his actions must always make sense in retrospect. You must provide him with a motivation. A purpose. … Make your villains live, my friends. Through them, you shall become legend.”
Rather than being a how-to guide or Janz’s version of On Writing, The Dark Game is very much a horror novel. It’s also a horror novel in which we can see the author exploring why he writes, sharing the lessons he learned over the years, while also telling one hell of a well crafted story. Although there’s clearly a lot of personal experience baked in, it never feels like Janz is speaking directly to you or breaking the fourth wall. Rather, it’s an author using a subject matter he is intimately familiar with — in this case, being an author — to ground the work in concrete credibility. Horror novels are rife with horror authors encountering the unnatural and inexplicable and becoming the main protagonist, and while that’s certainly true here, too, there’s a richness to the story, a muscularity to it all, that puts it pretty well close to the top of Janz’s output thus far. The suspense and eventual bloodshed have a literary meatiness to them, and the ideas presented within this book provide plenty to chew on. There’s an elegance to the revelations here, and Janz takes his time springing his various traps on us. The secrets each of these authors possess unfold slowly, while the plot simmers to a roiling boil.
The most popular maxim in writing is to write what you know. Well, Janz knows horror and literature, and the result is The Dark Game, a book that is all about fear. The fear writers carry that their stories aren’t ever good enough, the hope that their works can instill fear, the fears that make authors write in the first place, that inspire them or force them to grapple with, and the fear of unintended consequences. The fears of succumbing to egomania, and the price of immortality…and simply the fear of being forgotten or derided. And, ultimately, getting over those fears and just doing the damn work, to choose to, as Ketchum advises, fuck fear. It’s advice worth following, and advice that I suspect Janz took to heart writing this book especially. The end result is a story showcasing an author at the top of his own dark game.