In preparation for Joe Schreiber’s upcoming Star Wars horror novel Deathtroopers, I decided to read Mr. Schreiber’s two previous works, Eat the Dark and Chase the Dark. By fate of the post office, I received Eat the Dark first and reluctantly set down Wild Space in order to dig into this new prize. Quickly I sped across the pages, scouring the words, and paying attention to the style, the characters, and the setting, making sure I had a firm image of what the author was trying to display. With the first half dozen pages, I wasn’t very impressed. The main characters were introduced, the setting was displayed, and some of character plots were prepped for launch. Note the word launch. The beginning, the first couple chapters are like the prep stages for launching a NASA rocket. Mission control and the flight team go through the routine procedures, essential, but a little mundane. And then the switch is flipped and things accelerate on a rollercoaster ride that defies physics and soars up into the air with gripping anticipation, razor edge thrills, and epic eeriness. When I finished reading the last page, I realized I’d just finished reading a work of brilliant skill. The book itself is short, short enough that you can read it in one day, in fact I took the entire evening off to enjoy this book. Yet this story in itself is in no way short. It goes out and tells the story without dropping anything in the way of development or exploration. Everything that needed to be done was done. In my opinion the ability to be able to read a story in one sitting is a marvelous idea. It keeps the reader dug in and enraptured without losing focus. And what Schreiber accomplishes leaves no doubt in my mind why they chose him to take Star Wars into the realm of Horror.
Without revealing too much, Schreiber sets his story up to take place in an old hospital that is about to be closed down. There are several main characters to the story. Mike is an MRI technician whose job it is to pull the last shift at the hospital before it closes. His wife Sarah and son Eli come to visit, though Sarah’s real reason is her suspicion that Mike is cheating on her. The other woman in the equation is Jolie, a flirt who knows she has looks and isn’t bashful about using them. Then there’s Calhoun, the scrawny alcoholic security guard who has some problems of his own but means well. There’s Dr. Walker, the only physician remaining in the hospital and one other guest who pops in, Frank Snow, the last patient on the last day. Each character has their motivations, their flaws, and a part to play in the tale to come.
Now I’m not going to ruin any of the plot, even the minor events, because it is so much better having it all build up with surprise. In fact I’d recommend not even reading the blurb on the back cover but simply charging in with a blank slate. For those of you who would like to hear the details and don’t mind spoilers, I’ll include a stub at the bottom for your enjoyment. However, for the rest of us, let me give you an idea of what to expect. In terms of style and genre, Eat the Dark starts out as Stephen King’s The Shinning, then metamorphosis’s into Saw. There’s a part in the center of the novel where all the pieces begin clicking into place in a massive game of choice where each person has an opportunity to choose their fate. But afterwards the puzzle games slips into new, darker territory. Realms seldom ventured to. It is at this point that Eat the Dark becomes a masterful rendition of H.P. Lovecraft’s finest ideals. As the climax rises the story turns into a scene from John Carpenter’s The Thing. Finally in makes one last turn back into the realm of Lovecraft, and there the story ends. A suspenseful, gripping ride that leaves off with a final death’s head grin.
To finish things off I’m going to include a little of the style that Schreiber uses. His descriptions and fluent play on words really shines once the horror elements of the story kick into place. For example, in order to describe the fear that a character is feeling, he goes on to say “The fear was fully disorienting, like the first taste of some ancient alcohol, an overwhelming spirit whose elemental effect on his species had not changed for thousands of years.” Then there his skillful portrayal of darkness, “In the darkness shapes were beginning to coalesce, leaning figures with gangling limbs, the misshapen heads stamped with oblong faces and deep, insane eyes.” The picture presents the fear of the shadows, the terror that our mind creates out of the unknown. Even a simple line like “His face was like broken clockwork,” does a wonderful job at displaying the confusion on a person’s face but without wasting the moment. Little things like that appear throughout. In fact Schreiber even puts in a line to expand upon the title of the book:
Out of nowhere a Bradbury line occurred to him, stuck in his mind from a junior high paper he’d once written on Something Wicked This Way Comes: “They eat the dark, who only stand and breath.”
Through the clockwork collusion of details and events coupled with the descriptions and escalating turns, Eat the Dark easily ranks up there with any of Stephen King or H.P. Lovecraft’s works. If Schreiber can make the leap of bringing his world to the expanded universe of Star Wars, then Deathtroopers will truly be one of the best Star Wars novels out there.
Now for those of you looking for a little more detail and spoilers, without completely spoiling the novel, read on…
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As I mentioned, Eat the Dark takes place in a hospital. Since it is being closed down, all the windows have been boarded up, all the entrances locked except for one, and only four employees remain for the last night: Mike the MRI tech, Calhoun the drunken security guard, Jolie the female MRI tech, and Dr. Walker. On this last night, five police officers arrive with the last patient, Frank Snow, a convicted serial killer who liked to play games with his victims. As it so happens, he’s come in for an MRI scan because he’s complaining about some headaches. Another turn in the mix is Mike’s wife Sarah and his son Eli who arrive to check up on him. Sarah thinks Mike is cheating on her with Jolie and this plays a major psychological element for Mike and Sarah. Of course when they prepare to give Snow his brain scan, things go wrong. In fact, things start to get strange. Soon the power goes out, and remember, all the windows are boarded shut, its growing dark outside, and there’s only one exit, and Mr. Calhoun is the one with the keys. The element of plunging the story into pure darkness in a boarded up hospital is brilliant. Add to this a serial killer who is now free from his restraints and who enjoys playing games and you have a story. But Schreiber doesn’t stop there. These aren’t normal characters. Calhoun is an alcoholic who brings his own demons to the darkness he finds himself in. Little Eli finds comfort with the voice of Thomas the Tank Engine. Dr. Walker is playing a game of his own while he carries around a very old, mysterious tome for some reason. And then there’s snow. He’s not just a serial killer, he’s a shell for something far worse. The imagery that Schreiber creates is top notch. There are scenes where he reveals a butchered cop whose body parts litter the walls and floor like a macabre piece of art. There’s the sight of the cart full of bodies, the nurse hanging in the closet, the nightmare of the sixth floor, and ultimately the thing that is Frank Snow. Schreiber tops Stephen King by keeping the story concise and on the ball. He doesn’t draw things out or muddle the plot with unneeded episodes. Everything in here doesn’t just add to the story but actually is a puzzle piece that forms it. Furthermore, Schreiber manages to go toe to toe with Lovecraft by going a little farther with those indescribable things in the darkness, the old ones from another world. Lovecraft too often grazed over the details and simply stated that things were indescribably, too horrific to put to words, yet Schreiber manages to find those words while still maintaining that elusive unknown quality to the dark dread. I cannot say that Schreiber is better than either author, but I will say that this book ranks right up there with any of King or Lovecraft’s work. The real reality of the matter is that Schreiber doesn’t go out to best either author but to build upon their legacy’s to create a splendid piece of horror fiction. If his other works are as good as this one, then he will rank up there with them in due time.