The quandary of a book reviewer: how to critique a book that has a lot going for it, but doesn’t quite hit the bull’s eye? While reading Jonathan Maberry’s novel Ink, I wrestled with the problem. The book’s plot is certainly a grabber: a sadistic fiend becomes endowed with the ability to steal people’s most intimate memories by pilfering their tattoos. The tattoos fade from the victim’s body along with the stolen recollections, transferred onto the odious man’s physique and psyche. The significant events that the tattoos reflect are lost in a miasma of amnesia, rendering the people who commissioned the highly personal body ink bereft and miserable.
Given this highly disturbing storyline, I was perplexed by why my mind wandered while reading. Maberry is a talented writer, and this return to the universe of his series set in the eerie Pennsylvania town of Pine Deep made me eager to read the novel. I did a bit of reflecting about my feeling of being let down and concluded that the book seemed to offer too many irrelevant details, such as what a marginal/peripheral character orders at a bar or restaurant. While such flourishes can reveal personality traits, they can also clutter a story employing a sizeable cast of characters. Such literary irritations were largely offset by a plot that is unusual and compelling, as well as superb characterization of significant characters. Readers familiar with some of Maberry’s other works will rediscover individuals they have read about before. Some of whom make what amounts to a “cameo appearance”; they fade and disappear from the plot in a manner that is unintentionally reminiscent of the previously discussed tattoos that grow dim and become blanked out. One such narrative erasure concerns an occult expert who weighs in on the situation and dispenses info about psychic vampires. Despite the reader being provided with a recapitulation backstory, the woman abruptly disappears from the plotline. It was a tad disconcerting to find that she was only a blip on the radar of the chronicle, essentially an annotative device bolstered by character curlicues and a brief history.
As mentioned earlier, the predominant people in the story are finely delineated. An ink artist who goes by the moniker Patty Cakes had suffered an unthinkable tragedy in her native Viet Nam. Her loss is amplified when the remembrance of an image she had lovingly inked onto her skin fades away along with the affiliate emotions. Patty’s dear friend, a skip tracer known as Monk, becomes embroiled in the mystery of the missing memories. Like Patty, Monk is a damaged soul. Both sustain psychological scars that subsequently became literally etched into their bodies in the form of tattoos.
The tattoo-memory thief is a major league nasty named Owen Minor, who prefers to be thought of as “The Lord of the Flies.” How he became a parasitic abomination is revealed through so-called “Interludes” that depict Minor’s transitional trajectory. In “Interlude Seven,” for example, an introspective insight is disclosed: “His mind was the only thing he liked about himself. His body was a disappointment. He’d grown from a pallid child to a pallid man. Fleshy and sickly. Going to the gym made him hurt, and it was also like sweating to little effect while in a spotlight.”
While I appreciated the stylistic appeal of the “Interludes,” I would advise readers to pay attention to chapter headings to avoid possible timeline confusion. An “Interlude” sharing a page with contemporary action did not always flow smoothly. The ensuing jarring aspect likely contributed to my mind wandering during reading.
Despite such complaints, it was cool returning to Pine Deep’s spooky terrain. I initially ventured there with Ghost Road Blues, for which Maberry received the 2006 Bram Stoker Best First Novel Award. Parts of the town have changed over time, bending to arty and artisan business establishments and their purveyors. A constant is the pervasive weirdness of the place, beautifully depicted in this passage about its nightfall: “It stole in behind storm clouds, quiet and sly, and it crept onto rooftops and along alleys and peered into every window. Dressed in threadbare clothes of shadow, it pretended to be mundane and ordinary and not at all like the villain it was. But this was night in Pine Deep, and it has never been anyone’s friend.”
With Ink, Jonathan Maberry created some significant tremors on the horror Richter scale. But the book left me shaken, not stirred. I do look forward to the author’s next tour of Pine Deep and hope that the excursion won’t include too many distracting detours.