Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review: The Painted Darkness by Brian James Freeman

When Henry was a child, something terrible happened in the woods behind his home, something so shocking he could only express his grief by drawing pictures of what he had witnessed. Eventually Henry's mind blocked out the bad memories, but he continued to draw, often at night by the light of the moon.

Twenty years later, Henry makes his living by painting his disturbing works of art. He loves his wife and his son and life couldn't be better... except there's something not quite right about the old stone farmhouse his family now calls home. There's something strange living in the cramped cellar, in the maze of pipes that feed the ancient steam boiler.

A winter storm is brewing and soon Henry will learn the true nature of the monster waiting for him down in the darkness. He will battle this demon and, in the process, he may discover what really happened when he was a child and why, in times of trouble, he thinks: I paint against the darkness.

But will Henry learn the truth in time to avoid the terrible fate awaiting him... or will the thing in the cellar get him and his family first?

Written as both a meditation on the art of creation and as an examination of the secret fears we all share, The Painted Darkness is a terrifying look at the true cost we pay when we run from our grief--and what happens when we're finally forced to confront the monsters we know all too well.

Clocking in at 171 pages with what looks like a fourteen point font, I was underwhelmed at first sight by the length of this book. When I checked it out at the library and the lady handed me this little scrap of a book, I was surprised. This is the shocking and scary book that, if the hype is to be believed, will knock me out of my socks? What is it they say about assumptions?

This is a book all about tension. Henry's past and present is being unfurled - to both the reader and Henry himself - in bits in pieces as each chapter flips back and forth from a day in Henry's childhood to what is happening now. In the chapters involving the past, we all learn about a particular snow day where Henry wandered away from his babysitter's home and into the woods. In the chapters involving the present, Henry is an adult, married and the father of a three-year-old boy. He and his wife get into a fight over his painting which results in her leaving with their son on a trip to her parents'. Henry is alone in the house, painting as usual, when creepy noises emerge from the basement. Each time the chapters flip, the suspense is ratched up another notch; we're left wondering about Henry and his sanity. How much is real and how much is imaginary? Is it feasible that there could actually be a monster in the basement or are the memories of what happened to Henry on that fateful day when he was five manifesting themselves into something best treated with pharmaceuticals and a rubber room?

Comparisons to Stephen King abound for Brian James Freeman and rightfully so. Aspects of The Shining are certainly deserving here though plotwise they're light years apart. In both The Shining and The Painted Darkness, the main characters have activities that turn into fugue states (Jack's writing and here, Henry's painting); they are set in massive snowstorms, thereby limiting or wholly eliminating the possibility of escape and isolating them from the rest of the world; they see and talk to things/people who aren't really there (or are they?); the boiler is practically a character in its own right in both and are instrumental in the climaxes of both books; both Jack and Henry each have wives and a son. I was also reminded of King's short story, "1408" from Everything's Eventual, where a reporter checks into a supposedly haunted hotel room and barely lives to write about it. By the end of "1408" I realized my mouth had been hanging open. By the end of The Painted Darkness, I was confused but rather impressed that Freeman managed to squeeze so much into so few pages but it was really the pace that did it. Fast-paced and frantic, this book moves fast in a relatively short time span.

My only complaint is the illustrations. They didn't do anything for me in that their presence didn't affect my pulse. Monochromatic pictures of too-neatly-written words dripping blood seemed somewhat unrealistic, if that is at all possible. Also, the illustration of Henry as an adult make him look like a kid with a mustache. (I realize that was probably the idea and that they were probably going for the symbolism but I could have lived without it.)

The Painted Darkness is a big meaty punch wrapped in a little book. Is Henry batshit crazy or the owner of a completely overactive imagination that is still punishing him for the guilt he's repressing over his father? I believe it's more like something along these lines: just as with Tootsie Roll Pops and how many licks it would take to get to the center of one, the world may never know.

1 comment:

LindsayWrites said...

Love this blog!! really beautiful background with the old books. i'm a new GFC follower! can't wait to read more of your stuff!

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