A SMALL DARK PLACE

Martin Schenk

Villard / 340 pages / 1st edition (October 7, 1997)

ISBN: 037550074X

Remember the first time you read Stephen King or Robert McCammon? That kind of guilty feeling you got from enjoying something so twisted, reading voraciously through while witnessing cruelty and suffering? If you worked your way through that unsettling response, you’re probably ready for A Small Dark Place. If you’re still not comfortable with the experience, you may want to think twice about it. And if the mere idea of children in peril upsets you, you should definitely pass this one over for something more tame. Don’t worry — there are plenty of those around.

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Perhaps it’s just me, but deep down there lurks the irrational fear that I will end up a bag lady, pushing a rusty cart around, and sleeping in a doorway. Like I said: it’s my own absurd fear… or it may have been the phobia of every panhandler you try to ignore. There is a fine line that separates us from poverty. Is it a line you would do anything not to cross? To keep your family from the streets, would you accept a tragedy now to ensure prosperity later?

The Wileys began a slow slide into failure years ago. Their last hope (hastened by a banker with an old grudge) has failed and they face total financial ruin. Desperation and homelessness motivate Sandra to devise a plan that could save them all. Unfortunately, it is a vile plan, a plan that will risk the life of one of their two young children. The idea is so horrific, it takes days to convince her husband Peter to put it into action. Only when the scheme is fully prepared, does Peter give in to his misgivings and decide to abort. Too late. Fate has sprung the trap for them.

The media circus is everything they had hoped for, the peril much deadlier than they envisioned. When the last ditch rescue succeeds, it appears to be a miracle. And maybe it is, but nothing will ever be the same for the Wileys. And poverty may have been the better choice.

In the turn of a page, fifteen years pass. Prosperity has found the Wileys, but so has their past. The product of their cruel set-up is more than they realised and deadlier than they ever imagined. The Wileys’ vultures have come home to roost.

It will be a homecoming few will ever forget and fewer still will survive. The climax will make Carrie’s prom scene seem like a light appetiser to the real event. It’s mayhem that makes you nostalgic for Michael McDowell’s early works.

This is what horror is all about. It’s dread and carnage on the grand scale of the masters of terror. A compulsive read, if an imperfect product; the atrocities of the human creatures outweigh any fantastical factor Schenk could devise. The creepy, imagined frights waiting for us in the dark pale in comparison to the cruelty the average person is capable of rationalising and inflicting.