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Saturday, November 8, 2014

Hal Kowalski: "A Dark Angel"

Author:  Hal Kowalski
Title:  A Dark Angel (Kindle, 10/2014)
Plot Type:  Supernatural Horror

     In his debut novel, Kowalski presents us with a first-rate anti-hero, Silas Shivers: husband, father, businessman, and Hell’s emissary/assassin. Three years ago, Silas answered a too-good-to-be-true ad with the headline, “Catch Lightning in a Bottle.” When the prospective employer introduced himself as Lucifer, the ever-wisecracking Silas responded, “Can I call you Lou.” And yes, of course, it’s that Lucifer, the Lord of Hell. Silas’s life has been on a downward spiral ever since, although his income has increased dramatically. Silas tells his story in the first-person voice, which Kowalski handles with great finesse. As Silas explains, each and every time Lou contacts him, “My day goes to Hell.” Lucifer is an interesting character. Here, Silas describes the effect that Lou has on passersby as the two walk through a crowded market: “Some might think it odd that a man unassuming as he is still acts as a repellent, He’s like DEET to the mosquito world. It’s as if we stand within an invisible force field, and people instinctively pick up on the feral personality hidden beneath his shirt and tie.”

     In this world, the denizens of Hell are not humans who have gone astray. The entire story about evil Satan tempting human sinners is just a psychological ploy cooked up by God to keep humans in line. Lou explains that “Hell is not for humans…My domain is an everlasting prison for Abominations. Monsters. Demons. Conniving deities of the most unseemly sort. It is these you will hunt. Destroy, and send their ungodly souls to me.” Going against his better judgment, Silas handshakes a ten-year contract with Lou, agreeing to be on call whenever he is needed. That means that Silas must constantly be ready to drop everything and go off to kill one type of demonic monster or another. The primary Lou-related story line has Silas pursuing Molecc, the Boogeyman, a pedophilic predator who steals prepubescent children so that he can dine on their fear and their blood.

     The other, equally important story line involves Silas’s neighbors, Jessica and Marty Kade, whose teenage son, Ian, was found dead several months ago hanging by his neck in their basement. Silas’s business involves safety and security, so Jessica begs him to investigate Ian’s death because she believes that he was murdered. Reluctantly, Silas agrees to look into it even though he believes that the boy committed suicide.

     The action alternates between the two story lines, with a third character appearing intermittently: a man who has made a career of hiring out his arson skills to the highest bidder. Obviously, this man—Darius Poole—has a connection to one (or maybe both) of the main story lines, but that connection doesn’t become clear until late in the book. The blood and gore don’t really start to flow heavily until the final chapters, but the suspense begins building up right from the beginning.

     The strongest element in this novel is the self-deprecatory, sardonic, sometimes weary voice of Silas as he stumbles through his search-and-kill Boogeyman mission, puts his assistant on Ian’s case, and tries to keep his wife and family from finding out about his dark and devilish second job. And believe me, he has a difficult time with that last task, particularly because he always comes home from “business trips” covered with scars and abrasions that are not easily explained away. The situation gets even more difficult when the beautiful, red-haired Jaelle—another of Lou’s assassins—unexpectedly becomes his partner and seems to be making a play for him. (She reminded me of Kalinda on The Good Wife—curvaceously intimidating in skin-tight black leather). Silas himself states the theme of the book: “The simple truth: Anyone is capable of hiding pieces of themselves they deem the outside world is not ready, or worthy of accepting.”

     As Silas told his story, I was occasionally reminded of the folksy stage manager in Our Town, who keeps pointing out the small things in our lives that we should be appreciating. Here's Silas: “It’s midweek, dinner has been consumed and the dishes put away. The temperature is still unseasonably warm and a summer-like breeze rattles the blinds through the open windows, We’re fanned around the room watching Modern Family. Of course, Silas’s life doesn't have very many small pleasures any more, and his NE Ohio suburb is worlds apart from Thornton Wilder's sleepy New England village. 

     A Few Problem Areas: There are only a few areas of weakness, and they are mostly copy-proofing problems, specifically, some odd comma errors, some slip-ups in verb tense, a few homonym errors (several uses of “your” when the sentence calls for “you’re”), and one minor continuity error. The most noticeable punctuation problem is the total absence of ellipses (..) and em dashes (—) to indicate pauses or hesitations in dialogue. Here are two examples:

1. As it is in the book:“I thought. If it wouldn’t be,” I stammer.
With ellipses: “I thought...If it wouldn’t be…” I stammer.

2. As it is in the book: “She was upbeat. Seemed to be able to sleep without the help of. Well, you know. But.”
With ellipses and dash: “She was upbeat…seemed to be able to sleep without the help of…well, you know…But—”

     In general, these grammar and usage lapses did not interfere with my enjoyment of the book. The lengthy goblin gore scene, the childhood flashback scene, and the torture scene seemed to go on just a bit too long, but since this is a horror novel, maybe I'm wrong about that.

     My Conclusion: I cannot overstate the importance of Silas's unique voice to the overall strength of the novel. His just-get-it-done attitude and his darkly sarcastic humor are sometimes his only means of surviving some horrific situations (plus a powerful antique knife and body armor from Hell). If you are looking for a supernatural horror novel with a terrific lead character, an inventive mythology, and plenty of action and suspense (and gore), this is the book for you.

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