The King in Darkness is a Canadian speculative fiction publication from Renaissance Press, following Adam Godwinson – former priest and currently working at a used bookstore – as he unravels a bizarre conspiracy.
I enjoyed this book as a character piece and as a conspiracy novel; as a horror novel, it fell a little short. It’s all the more frustrating because it almost, ALMOST hit the spot and is in so many ways a novel that I adore! So below, I’m going to discuss it first without and then with spoilers, and I’m sure there are people for whom this book will be absolutely perfect.
Like I said above, the character work in this book is fantastic. Adam is a former priest who left the profession after continued disillusionment in the church, and now works at a used bookstore. I love all the details about used books that show up, from the obligatory “donations” in banana boxes to the occasional bizarre and fun find, to the authors that nobody else ever seems to have read. I don’t think I’ve ever read about a former priest in a novel before, and it’s made even sweeter when you slowly meet the kids-turned-adults who have stayed in touch with him – his former flock of youths, who still call him Father (despite his protests). As it turns out, one of the major forces that drove him to leave the church was one of his flock coming out to him as a lesbian, and then being quietly pushed out of the church. At no point does Adam pat himself on the back for this or dwell on being a good person – he’s just quietly furious about it.
The priest angle is even more satisfying when one of the members of the conspiracy turns out to be the head of a fundamentalist church. Adam facing him down and telling him that no, he is not interested in joining his church is a beautiful thing to witness. So is his quiet devotion to his flock; whether it’s Napoleon being hurt, Jane needing company to a speech or Fred needing a little push in the right direction, he’s right there.
Where the book doesn’t work, largely, is the supernatural angle. The mystery of the book is interesting, although with a couple too many dead ends to be fully satisfying; however, the horror just doesn’t quite show up enough to keep the tension going. (More on this in the spoilered section!)
The other place the book doesn’t quite work is much sadder for me on a personal level. Alex is another member of Adam’s flock – a boy who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and who has trouble staying on his meds, so wanders in and out of group homes and shelters and such, his friends doing what they can for him. While the homeless schizophrenic is a bit of a stereotype to begin with, Adam is so obviously sympathetic that I was pretty hopeful. However, Alex only speaks in disjointed sentences and gibberish, and eventually ends up dropping plot-useful hints, with no answer ever given as to how he knows this. The empathy in his writing almost takes him from stereotype to character, but ultimately, he’s the Convenient Schizophrenic as Plot Device – and it’s all the more crushing because it would have taken one or two different writing decisions to do something more interesting. Still, I deeply appreciate that Alex was included at all – and frankly, it is a nice change from him being a murderer. (What does that tell you about the state of psychosis rep? Sighs.)
It’s exactly the same thing that makes me so frustrated by the ending. The idea is theoretically EXTREMELY cool – as it turns out, the danger posed is only a danger as long as the ideas are believed in and the concept is executed as a trope – but ironically enough, the execution falls flat. Maybe it’s the lack of foreshadowing, or the lack of drama that takes the wind out of the book’s sails right at the key moment, but I was with the book and ready for the BIG MOMENT! – when the “reveal” just sort of. Happened.
King in Darkness has gorgeous writing and amazing character work, set in a city that feels real (I can attest – I live in it!). It doesn’t quite succeed as a horror novel, though, and while the ideas it reaches for are fantastic in theory and it sets off at a running start, the execution fumbles right at the most critical moments. Worth a read, and I personally enjoyed it, but frustrating if you’re somebody who frets over plotholes.