By Dennis Etchison (Charter; 1986)

The first novel by Dennis Etchison that wasn’t a movie novelization, DARKSIDE is a triumph of serious, deeply felt horror fiction. However, it’s still very much a first novel, and so not without some glaring flaws.

It can be viewed in retrospect as something of a forerunner to the popular movies FLATLINERS and SUICIDE CLUB. Etchison tackles the same issues they do–brief trips into the afterlife and teen suicide–but with arguably more finesse than either. So much of DARKSIDE is so good, in fact, that it’s downright aggravating the novel isn’t better overall.

A stand-alone prologue has a teenage boy struggling with employment hassles at a Los Angeles convenience store, along with menacing phone calls from an unidentified someone who knows a deadly secret. This 24-page screed, virtually a short story in itself, amply demonstrates all that makes Etchison such a powerful writer. Like any number of his stories, it presents a vividly rendered look at the minutiae of suburban existence invaded by an ambiguous supernatural menace. Nobody else has Etchison’s knack for balancing a documentary-like grasp of the ordinary with an equally potent evocation of hallucinatory terror.

Unfortunately, once the main narrative starts up things get a little wonky. The early scenes of the thirtyish protagonist Doug and his step-family are filled with irritating fake scares that seem better suited to a B-movie (there are Long, Dark Shadows everywhere which invariably turn out to be cast by mundane objects). Nor is the writing especially cohesive. Particularly vexing is Doug’s inference that his stepdaughter Erin is asleep and apparently “lost in a fantasy of quick, furtive graspings in shadowed places and words whispered into the tender skin of her throat”…even though the girl isn’t even in bed at that point!

But the novel improves appreciably as it advances. The middle section, a wrenching evocation of loss and despair, contains some of the finest writing Etchison has ever achieved.

Erin, it transpires, is involved in a retro-sixties cult whose leaders promote a drug that dwarfs those of Doug’s generation: Death itself. The cultists attain this state by committing suicide and then being zapped back to life after five or so minutes. Inevitably Erin’s life ends up permanently snuffed out by this dangerous practice, which Doug eventually tries out himself in an effort to ensure the rest of his family doesn’t meet the same fate. But as he’s set to discover, the consequences of this particular high are far more horrific than anyone can imagine.

The novel’s final third, alas, jumps the tracks. As in the opening, the climactic sequences are littered with B-movie elements that don’t gel with the rest of the book (such as Doug’s decidedly implausible discovery of a discarded purse in a crowded dance club) and some incoherencies; it’s never made clear how Doug and his medically dead daughter are whisked from an underground stronghold to a hospital–and in time to save the girl’s life, moreover!

Thus we have an unusually thoughtful and compelling horror novel that fails to reach its true potential. Etchison is one of the best writers in the business, and proves it in DARKSIDE, even if the book never does entirely find its footing.