Steven Krane,
Stranger Inside
(DAW, 2003)

I admit to an irrational fear of spontaneous human combustion. Every attempt to debunk the phenomenon leaves something unexplained; every report of it makes it seem unexpected and uncontrollable, like a lightning bolt from within. So I may have been an easy target for Steven Krane's Stranger Inside, with its focus on human combustion and the unstoppable forces that cause it.

That mystery is framed by the life of James Somerset, survivor of a mysterious fire that should have killed him in infancy, and the desperate investigations of Nate Adriano, a private detective with a misplaced obsession for the mysterious pattern of child combustion. Nate's investigations are mirrored by TRACE, a secretive government agency with an unusual attitude.

Krane utilizes the mysterious nature of human combustion to its full effect, making an already bizarre phenomenon even more threatening and ominous. Krane has created that rare character, a surly, troubled teen who is genuinely likeable without being pitiable. James deals with his mental problems, both normal and bizarre, with an attitude perfectly fitting the teenage boy he is. Nate Adriano, the detective trying to save James from his self-immolation, feels more like a stock character. It may simply be due to the fact that James has a more unusual background than Nate, or because detectives have been given so many stories that it's hard for one to stand out. Nate is at least a comfortable stock character, with enough depth to fit into a world that also has a James Somerset.

The one glaring fault of Stranger Inside is the constant insertion of James's self-scripted comic book, centered on his alter ego Cain. At first only a mild distraction, it soon becomes as intrusive as a commercial break in the middle of hypnotically good show. The comic book is obviously meant to work as a window on James' deeper thoughts, among other roles, but Stranger Inside is so tightly written overall that the comic script interludes come across as repetitive and interrupt the urgent flow of the story. Merely irritating in the first, slower chapters, the script interludes become offensive as the action builds to a peak, throwing a roadblock between the reader and the story.

James, Nate and the shadowy TRACE project all slide together with the inevitability of the children's self-immolation. The ending feels smooth and unforced, and has a surprisingly peaceful resolution in a story so full of horror. Even the forced reappearance of the Cain comic script doesn't manage to damage it too much. Krane is a competent storyteller and has a natural feel for supernatural horror. It's a shame he chooses to share writing duties with his less gifted creation, but Stranger Inside is still a compelling trip into the bizarre.

- Rambles
written by Sarah Meador
published 19 April 2003

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