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The Boston Phoenix Empty Harvest

Newcomer Martin Schenk is no threat to Stephen King

By Ted Drozdowski

JULY 20, 1998: 

A SMALL DARK PLACE, by Martin Schenk. Villard Press, 340 pages, $23.

A good scare is hard to find. And in his debut novel A Small Dark Place, Los Angeles cartoonist/screenwriter Martin Schenk -- who's been pegged by the literary-insider periodical Kirkus Reviews as a budding rival to Stephen King -- leaves literally no stone unturned in his search for a chill.

The horror in this modernist monster thriller is so far underground that young protagonist Andromeda Wiley must drop 83 feet into an abandoned oil-drilling shaft to encounter it. That sets off a story of rescue, revenge, and a sort of redemption that's a little too close to King's Carrie for comfort. Except for the redemption, which has a New Age touchy-feely sensibility that's laughable.

At the story's center are the Wileys, dirt-poor and about to be forced off their Wishbone, Kansas, farm by a slimy little pervert of a banker. Faced with homelessness, mother Sandra Wiley dreams up a plan to snare her eight-year-old son, Will, in an abandoned dry oil-well shaft. Not permanently -- just long enough to sustain a dramatic rescue that will capture the hearts (and cash donations) of a nation via obliging media coverage.

Sandra and her lumpen husband, Peter, bait the trap but lose their resolve at the last minute. Actually, later than that. As they're about to abandon their plan, they find their terrified-of-the-dark five-year-old daughter Andromeda has fallen into the hole. The rescue brings the Wileys the wealth and notoriety they'd hoped for, but at the price of Andromeda's sanity -- and quite possibly her soul. After she emerges from the depths in a catatonic state, she's whisked off to live as far from Wishbone as possible by a psychiatrist who resolves to cure the famed victim. And write a bestseller about the process of her recovery.

Despite eventual appearances, Andromeda is forever changed by her five days within the bear hug of soil. But the citizens of Wishbone, the journalists, the psychiatrist, and her own plotting parents -- all of whom reaped great rewards from her misfortune -- don't know how profoundly until Andromeda returns home 15 years post-ordeal.

Adult Andromeda appears both healed and well-heeled, a comely and sophisticated 20-year-old swan to Carrie's ugly duckling. Her charm seduces a whole town save for her brother Will, who has always suspected that something wicked happened way down in the hole. He's right, of course, which all of Wishbone eventually realize under the smoke and heat of Andromeda's apocalyptic revenge on their dead-end burgh. Vengeance exacted, she then returns to the earth and to her now-natural form as an elemental spirit that courses through roots. (No kidding.) If that's not dopey enough, the novel closes with Andromeda making her presence known to her brother by manifesting herself as a patch of blue flowers in the family acreage.

King needn't feel threatened. His world of vampires, out-of-control mentally abused psychics, psycho cops, ax killers, giant spiders, and zombies is a creepier, smarter, and funnier place than Schenk's land of the big bad blossom. As prolific a hack as he is, King has a gift for pulling us into his characters' skins until it's impossible to be comfortable. Schenk is all surface. He even relates the yarn of Andromeda's rescue from above ground, like a newsreel with a little guilty pathos tossed in. King would have let us live the experience with Andromeda, not her guilt-ridden parents or her rescuers. King would have described with obsessive firsthand detail the excruciating thoughts and pains and mental deterioration that come with being trapped nearly a week in an earthen tomb.

King's also a deft wiseass. His novels are full of little pop culture-spun jokes about rock and roll, television, the movies. That's one of his devices for bringing his characters into our world, so we can relate to them. Schenk's prose is dry and humorless, uninviting. His characters have never pogoed to the Ramones or watched The Flying Nun or seen Lon Chaney Jr. cross the moors with furry feet.

And he expects us to be afraid of a damn flower.

Ted Drozdowski is the former associate arts editor of the Boston Phoenix.

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