The Dark Game: One Game You Don’t Want to Play
Jonathan Janz is a rising star in the horror industry. He had a long run of books on Samhain before that publisher closed up shop. After Samhain, he went on to Sinister Grin and some other smaller presses. Now, with the rise of Flametree Press, we have the return of Jonathan Janz. This is Janz second original book for Flametree, who has also been publishing his back catalogue. The Dark Game is Jonathan Janz’s newest original book. It is quite the read. This was my first introduction to Janz and it won’t be the last.
The Dark Game follows ten writers who are invited to a writing retreat hosted by a reclusive writer by the name of Roderick Wells. Wells is a major influence to all the writers invited, and although he has only published a handful of novels, his reputation is outstanding. He’s considered a literary king and these ten writers feel lucky to be in the same room as him. Each of the ten writers has a similar situation about them. Many of them struggle with impostor syndrome, and each of them blew up early and their careers fizzled out. Also, each of them has dark secrets which will slowly leak out over the course of the story. They all gather at Mr. Wells estate where they sign their rights over to him, and the games begin. The game is simple, they must each write a horror novel. If they break the rules, Mr. Wells will be kick them out of the retreat. The rules are simple, it must be the best book they have ever put their hearts and souls into. But, it must also be true, and it has to be horror. Many of the writers don’t take this seriously and don’t see the sinister intent behind the game until it is too late.
The Dark Game is a book about sins of omission. Each character has a dark secret and that secret leads to their demise. The only characters able to progress, are the ones who come to terms with their secrets. Other characters have guilt consuming them, or are driven to madness by their secrets. Wells has secrets of his own and reminds me a lot of the uncle in Peter Straub’s Shadowland. The characters are suspicious about Wells, but they still continue with the game because once the doors have closed they can’t leave. They are stuck in Wells mansion, trying to write their books, dealing with the guilt of their past, and having their books and guilt come to life. Everything the characters write come to life and picks at their sanity and trust in one another.
If you’re a horror fan, Janz is a voice worth reading. I had an interesting experience with this book. This is a book that gradually improves, to a climax that is unforgettable. It has something for every type of horror fan. Do you want violence and gore? You got it. Do you want slow-building dread? You got it. Do you want a mystery that slowly reveals as the dread increases? You got it. It has everything you would want in a horror book. This is a good and bad thing.
First the positives, the chapters are short which keeps the book moving at a brisk pace. You have a writer confident in his voice and feels like he’s at the top of his game. You have fleshed out characters whom the reader will grow to love or hate each one. All these characters are believable and Mr. Wells is one of the best villains I have come across in a horror novel. Also, the tone of this book is impeccable, well, almost. By the end of this book, it feels like you’re reading a homage to early Peter Straub, and it’s awesome. However, things are different when the book starts.
In the beginning there are some concerns. the first chapters of the book have a lot of head hopping. It makes it difficult to follow each character. There are ten characters and the chapters are short. So, in the beginning, you’re constantly hopping into and out of their heads. This makes the text confusing at first. Also, while Janz is paying homage to Straub and has a very grim and dark tone, there are a few deaths at the beginning that are very cartoony and feel like something you would find in a Brian Keene or a Skipp and Spector novel. Which is fine, but it clashes with the dark and serious tone that Janz is going for. But, while more characters die, the head hopping lessons, the cartoony deaths stop, and the real dread and sinister forces come forth.
Janz is a rising star in the horror genre, and I now understand why. This book caught me by surprise and while the beginning is lukewarm. By the time I got to the halfway point I was hooked and couldn’t put in down. Janz created some utterly despicable characters you want to see die. He also created a couple you wanted to root for and you hope would live. This book represents a homage to Janz’s influences, but it also represents an author at the top of his game. Janz is a voice to look out for, and The Dark Game is a fantastic starting point. Enter the house of Mr. Wells, just know that once that door closes behind you there is no leaving. This is a game you have to play, if you are willing. When Mr. Wells calls, you answer, even if you don’t want to.