James Kidman,
Black Fire
(Cemetery Dance, 2004)

Eddie Farris had a traumatic adolescence, the kind that ends in a gunshot. In his case, there were two gunshots; one took his mother, and one took his father. He was found legally innocent of the killings, especially since he'd been shot several times himself; but the court of public opinion is still undecided.

Since then, he's tried to rebuild his life in the town where he grew up. It hasn't been easy, being known as the kid who killed his family, but he has a job with an old family friend, a few allies with the older generation, and his books and longhand stories to keep him company. That's all, but it seems like enough, until the girlfriend who left him after the tragedy comes to ask for his help. She asks him to save her from his father, come back to take his vengeance on both of them for stopping him all those years ago. Now Eddie's fragile peace is threatened by the ghosts of the past, as he tries to decide where he can turn for help, and whether there's anyone he can trust, especially himself. If he chooses wrong, he'll be lost in the same Black Fire that's claimed three generations of his family.

At the risk of stringing up one of the many red herrings swimming through this mystery, I'll reveal that this isn't a traditional ghost story. There is a mystic, almost mythical terror throughout the book, but it's much more subtle and graceful than the usual unquiet spirit. Kidman deserves credit for trying to put a new spin on the haunted soul story. Kidman also deserves credit for his portrayal of Eddie Farris's brand of imaginative insanity, his mental breakdown post-trauma, that allows reality to filter in but with so many doubts and contradictions even readers will be double checking past chapters to make sure their facts are clear.

Black Fire isn't a flawless debut. Kidman himself often seems uncertain of his facts, especially when it comes to things like medical trauma and the more immediate laws of physics. What does a gunshot do to a human skull? How does a car slide in a rain storm? What does a punctured eye really look like? These are the sort of things that don't come up much in daily conversation, but occur often in horror fiction, and when they do come up in Black Fire, it feels like Kidman makes a guess at the answer. Solid research makes a more solid story, and those physical touchstones are even more important in a hallucinogenic world like Eddie's.

But these small weaknesses aren't enough to put out Black Fire. A supernatural mystery with an actual surprise ending, a likable hero with real flaws and above all a compelling story that knows how to move on its merry way, keep Black Fire shining bright.

by Sarah Meador
21 October 2006

Buy it from Amazon.com.