By Nick Antosca (Word Riot Press, 2009)
Bram pulls into the parking lot half asleep and the crunch of gravel under his tires becomes the crunch of bone. Something screams.
The old deerhound that lives at the bar—it’s pouring tonight and he didn’t even see her.
He gets out of his dented Pontiac, hunches against the downpour. He doesn't want to look. It's 3:30 A.M. and the bar is dark. No light to see by except the Pontiac's headlights, ghostly cones of white slashed by rain.
He kneels to look under the car.
"Baby!" he yells, getting up. "Where are you?"
Movement off in the darkness, on the other side of the car. The deerhound, dragging herself away. She looks less like a dog than a man in a dog suit, huge, crawling across the gravel. He goes to her side.
"Oh, I'm sorry, I'm sorry,"—his voice splintering—"Hold on, let me look."
The damage is catastrophic; the dog will die.
Not quickly, though.
These are the opening paragraphs to Nick Antosca's Midnight Picnic, a short and terrifying book that I read a few months ago now and just can't get out of my head. The plot follows Bram, an aimless young man living in West Virginia who finds the bones of a murdered child. Hours later, the dead child finds Bram and asks him to help avenge his death. What follows would be, in the outline of the plot, part ghost story, part revenge story, except that the experience of reading it is less like either narrative and more like having a waking nightmare.
I don't use the word terrifying lightly. As anyone who's been to a bad horror movie knows, scaring people is not easy. Do it wrong and it's boring, or maybe just kind of disgusting, or worse, unintentionally funny. (That the line between horror and comedy is so thin and blurry is one of the reasons, I think, that the comedic horror movie has blossomed into such a delightful genre.) Do it right, though, and you tap into the fear that early humans must have felt when the sun went down and it began to rain, and they were huddled in a group under a tree that did not provide shelter, and they knew that predators were coming for them. For me, the first two-thirds of The Shining do that (though not the final third, which becomes boring); perhaps all of 28 Days Later and much of Clive Barker's stuff does, too.
But Midnight Picnic's particular brand of scare reminds me most of David Lynch, who, at his best, pulls horror from simple elements—lighting, sound, costume, a good line, clever camera work—capturing with eerie effectiveness the experience of having a very bad and extremely compelling dream. Antosca's own use of such dream logic is the best I've come across in a long time. There are a few missteps—at one point, about halfway through the book, Bram interrogates the dead child in a way that very nearly breaks the spell—but here I'm just quibbling. I could give you passage after passage of the images and conversations that engrossed and frightened me, but I don't want to ruin them.
Also, and most impressively, Antosca manages to give his story what many horror tales never even reach for: heart. Yes, Midnight Picnic is scary. But it's also, keenly and unexpectedly, touching and tragic; for underneath the ghosts and revenge is another story about a boy looking for his father, but not being quite ready for what he finds.