By William Relling Jr. (Tor; 1986)
The late William Relling Jr. was a prolific and respected horror and mystery scribe back in the day (and also the author of a memorable take-down of FORREST GUMP that appeared in the Los Angeles Times back in ’94). BRUJO was his debut novel, bearing superlative cover blurbs as well as a lot of enthusiastic reviews in the horror press. All that praise was overdone in my view, although BRUJO works reasonably well on its own terms.
A fast, easy read, it begins with the consciousness of a long-dead brujo, or sorcerer, awakening in its resting place on Southern California’s Catalina Island. Catalina is home to many free-roaming animals, which turn out to be ideal vessels for the brujo to exterminate the “Evil Ones” defiling his peoples’ land. The brujo also utilizes the services of Casey, a weak-minded man who becomes “The-One-Who-Would-Serve” the brujo’s telepathic dictates.
The “Evil Ones” are the white people residing on Catalina, and also Trevor Baldwin, a divorced building contractor, and his young son Markie, who are heading to the island for a vacation. They’re attacked by birds during the ferry-ride to Catalina, and after they reach land the animal attacks intensify, with whales sinking ships, buffalo crashing cars and a swarm of bees bringing down an airplane–which is especially unfortunate considering that the plane was carrying Trevor’s girlfriend. Casey, meanwhile, gets up to all sorts of nastiness under the brujo’s influence, even though he tries his damnedest to resist it.
The novel is solidly written, if a bit flavorless and impersonal. The same can be said for the characterization of Trevor, who’s as bland a protagonist as can be imagined. The brujo, despite his one-dimensionality, is far more interesting, and, frankly, sympathetic: at least he has a goal, and the determination to see that goal through.
Where BRUJO really comes to life is its many spectacularly horrific set-pieces, which include a dog killing in the opening chapter, which concludes with the critter inexplicably shuddering back to life, and a mid-book cat attack on an infant. Of course, the above are accomplished with a curious absence of gore, with the descriptions always leading up to the gorings and then cutting off at the point of attack. This is neither an asset nor a hindrance in my view, given the author’s considerable descriptive power, but I’m not sure those descriptions are enough to redeem the book’s shortcomings.