By Bentley Little (Signet; 2001)

From the eighties onward, it seems that every new horror author appearing on the scene was anointed, wrongly so, as the “next” Stephen King.  There is, however, one writer I believe can conceivably inherit King’s mantle (outside Stephen King’s son Joe Hill, whose debut novel HEART-SHAPED BOX has received much deserved praise), though he’s hardly a “new” author: Bentley Little, who’s penned a dozen or so pop horror thrillers containing all the verve and readability of Stephen King at his best.  Furthermore, Little’s novels are each readily available at bookstores across the country, something only King and Koontz can currently boast.  Bentley Little’s star may be ascending slowly, but it definitely is rising.

THE ASSOCIATION contains everything a fan of the author might expect: an intriguing premise and an absorbing narrative rendered in easy, conversational prose.  It’s a traditional horror story in many respects (with similarities to Joan Sampson’s classic THE AUCTIONEER, although I don’t believe the present book is quite in the same league), but the author’s genius is in making it seem as fresh and unique as anything you’ve ever read.

Barry and Maureen are a young couple moving away from the bustle of Southern California to Bonita Vista, a pastoral community in Utah.  The only problem is the place is governed by an obnoxious homeowner’s association with an extremely rigid set of conduct that seems to change every few minutes.  Among their rules: no pets, no children, no unseemly public displays and no home decorations that might clash with Association standards.  As Barry and Maureen’s life in Bonita Vista stretches on, the regulations only grow more outrageous: no working inside one’s own home (security cameras are installed to regulate this rule), no minorities on the premises, no gays, no unmarried cohabitation, etc.

The penalty for non-compliance with these rules are fines–and if those fines aren’t paid even worse punishments are in store, as exemplified by a peripheral character known as Stumpy who has no arms or legs.  And it’s not just the residents of Bonita Vista who feel the Association’s wrath, but those of the surrounding towns, whose dogs and children begin to suspiciously disappear.  Barry understandably decides he’s had enough, but how can he fight the Association’s imperious leaders, especially since, as he begins to believe, they may not even be human?

This book isn’t scary so much as troubling, particularly since its ultra-conservative Association doesn’t seem that far removed from our present leadership, down to the fines they use to keep their citizens in line.  The book was written with real anger, or least seems to have been–check out the author’s dedication, to his son, “with the hope that he will never have to deal with the petty stupidity of a homeowners’ association.”  Little also takes some well-aimed jibes at the horror community by making his protagonist a writer of scary books who shuns workshops and conventions because he doesn’t like the “petty infighting” among his fellow writers (a complaint I’ve heard from quite a few real-life horror scribes).

The book has some problems.  It takes the protagonists an awful long time to fully catch on to the true awfulness of the Association, and then even longer to finally do something about it.  Get this: toward the end of the book Barry thinks nothing of allowing a visiting friend to go for a walk alone in a secluded area of the community, and then has the nerve to act surprised when the guy goes missing.  The overly tidy conclusion also leaves much to be desired in the way it allows the many terrible crimes committed by the Association, and by extension the residents of Bonita Vista, to go unpunished.  I’m all for happy endings, but they need to be earned, not slapped on.