How does it feel to be trapped with the shark from Jaws, a psychopathic clown, and the zombie from Night of the Living Dead who terrorized siblings Johnny and Barbara? Author Rhiannon Frater harvests pop culture to escalate the horror in her novel Dead Spots. The narrative deftly explores the insidious nature of fear and how it gets under the skin, producing reactions far worse than gooseflesh.
Frater starts the story with a classic set-up: a bereft protagonist struggling to cope with the aftermath of tragedy. Mackenzie’s baby was stillborn, and the subsequent grief leads to the dissolution of her marriage, six months after the death. Her spouse has moved on; his new lady is already pregnant. Mackenzie is pressured by her overprotective paranoid mother to return to the family ranch. En route, she careens into a “dead spot,” one of many ramshackle abandoned edifices that can be psychically transformed back to their previous condition. The altered buildings are transitory and “contain doorways into the world between the living and the dead, the world of dreams and nightmares.”
Dead spot sites tap into each entrapped person’s unique terrors and frailties, but the tortured also get physically dragged into the nightmares and phobias of others ensnared in this unholy universe. Those caught in this perpetual purgatory frequently die painfully while battling fears incarnate. They then return hobbled from the fight, increasingly weakened by the recurrent rounds that inevitably follow. Mackenzie is particularly vulnerable given her recent losses.
She is beset by macabre female phantoms carrying spooky baby dolls, and is besieged by diabolic doppelgangers of her mother and ex-husband who taunt her about how she has failed them, respectively, as a daughter and a wife. Mackenzie is also badgered by ghastly entities craving to feed off her vibrant life force. Gradually, she becomes empowered to defy her weak self esteem, which is the target and source of many of the assaults she experiences.
Rhiannon Frater does a stellar job conjuring up nightmarish images. One that really rattles the imagination concerns a beautiful young woman, perfectly coiffed and dressed, who undergoes a gross metamorphosis. She eats a meal at a café situated in a dead spot, and then proceeds to order much more and consume copious quantities of food. Her physique changes so radically that the rapidly expanding girth is barely contained by her clothing. The insatiable eating eventually degenerates to self-cannibalism.
The intensity is palpable. Ms. Frater is savvy in ratcheting up the chills, and also deserves props for being droll and clever. The previously mentioned zombie from Night of the Living Dead, for example, is slyly depicted. Mackenzie is aware that she’s seen the creature somewhere before, and the pronounced whiteness of his countenance strikes a chord, although it’s not initially clear why. Later, there is an ingenious explanation: the movie character personified is blanched because the cinematography of the iconic film was black and white.
Those who inhabit the dead spots linger in the reader’s mind long after this finely executed tale ends. Dead Spots, published by Tor Books, is pleasurably disturbing.