Almost six months ago at a local writers conference I met Michaelbrent Collings, writer of horror, screenplays, and some other bizarre stuff. He’s also a cool guy, though not necessarily in a “I can’t believe he writes horror” sort of way. There’s ample evidence of a dark side in his normal conversation. And we had several good conversations. Between that and his panel discussions I became convinced this is a person who can teach me a few things about writing. So I felt I should buy one of his books.
The problem is, I’m not a horror fan. But that, in itself, might be something I could learn from. One doesn’t have to like horror to apply horror-like techniques to ones writing. So I just flat-out asked him, “I’m not a horror fan, but I think I should give it a try. What book would you recommend for a horror newbie?” He recommended “Mr. Gray.” It’s not true horror, but has enough horror elements to ease one in that direction. “Ah, like a gateway drug?” I offered.
My copy is signed by Mr. Collings, “Enjoy your ‘gateway'”.
So, fast forward six months. It’s not that I avoided this book. I just had a lot of books in line ahead of it. I’ve been focusing a lot lately on breaking up the log-jam, and suddenly I found myself face to face with “Mr. Gray.” (I note on his website, that the book now carries an alternate title/cover as “The Meridians”.)
This book is what’s referred to in some circles as a “genre-buster”. It’s a supernatural thriller. It has strong elements of horror. As “The Meridians” it has been reset as a science fiction thriller. And it’s probably one of the reasons why Collings self-publishes–he markets his books to his readers, not to a genre.
While the horror elements are strong, it’s far from slasher-fic. This is more of a suspense thriller. Certainly Collings gets more descriptive than entirely necessary, but not to excess. Nor is the language excessive. Sex? Nah, unless you get excited by references such as, “…after making love they talked quietly in the dark.” While I wouldn’t hand it to my kids, there’s very little to get offended by. Dan Wells’ “John Cleaver” series is a good comparison for content.
The book centers around the character of Scott Crowley, an LAPD detective whose wife and son are murdered by a mysterious hit man who comes to be known as “Mr. Gray”. The hitman nearly kills Scott, also, but he is saved by extraordinary means. Unfortunately, those same circumstances mean that Mr. Gray will be coming for him again and again until he finishes the job–a job that includes someone else he’s never even met.
I enjoyed the book–I had a hard time putting it down once I got into it. But at around 370 pages it’s not short enough to read in one sitting, so I learned to put it down anyway. The plot line is well constructed, and all the pieces are sufficiently established–and yet I still didn’t figure out the ending beforehand. This is not a particularly deep book, but the characters are interesting, especially the autistic son who is at the center of it all. The main focus is on the plot and the suspense.
There were a few things I found distracting in Collings’ style. Perhaps some of it are conventions of the horror/thriller genre. I got a little tired of the cliffhanger chapter endings after awhile, and especially how often a character ended a chapter acknowledging that they were about to die or were seeing/breathing/eating/spitting/wearing bunny slippers for the last time. As many times as they were convinced they were about to die and yet somehow managed not to, you’d think they’d figure it out and require greater proof first in the future. The characters also spend a lot of time thinking the same old thoughts. A few times would be understandable, but eventually I wanted to tell them to get over it and think about something else!
On the other hand, as frustrating as I found at times, his characters were realistic, in that they did not possess skills they shouldn’t have. Mr. Gray was the only one with supernatural abilities, and he was…well, supernatural. Even ex-cop Scott loses many of his honed police skills after eight years in retirement. Of course this only heightens the suspense–you don’t expect the protagonists to fight their way out of the situation. Mr. Gray is not infallible, but he is going to be extremely difficult to beat. And Collings does a good job of explaining why they can’t just fight their way out.
I’m pretty sure I’ll be picking up another Michaelbrent Collings book in the future. If this wasn’t horror, I think I’d like to see the difference. And, based on what I’ve seen so far, I think Collings might be the right guy to drive the tour bus.