There is a spectre in modern horror. A looming figure that casts a long shadow over all writers who set forth to write a horror novel. Stephen King. I’ve lost count of the number of horror novels that I’ve read which turn out to be nothing more than pale imitations. The Book of Accidents by Chuck Wendig is not one of these.
It treads unhallowed ground that will be familiar to any of King’s Constant Readers; small town America haunted by something sinister and hungry targeting an isolated family. But I repeat: The Book of Accidents is not a Stephen King imitator.
So why even bring up the dreading SK?
Because The Book of Accidents is good. Really good. Stephen King good?
That question is a hard one. I adore Stephen King and I’ve read most of his books until the spines are cracked and frayed; we’ve had years together and I’ve only had The Book of Accidents for a short time—but what a time it’s been!
This is a really good horror novel, possibly a great horror novel—come back to me after I’ve re-read it a few times and the spine is starting to give way (because I will re-read this book).
Nate, a detective with a past he doesn’t want to talk about, returns to the home of his unhappy childhood, a place dominated by his abusive father. The home is not built on an ancient burial ground, but it is in close proximity to Ramble Rocks Park, the hunting ground of serial killer, Edmund Walker Reese (who may or may not have been executed in the 90s). The move is prompted by the father’s death and a need for a fresh start for Nate’s son, Oliver. It’s not long before things start to go wrong for Nate and his family—even his wife, Maddie, seemingly less damaged than her husband or son, begins experiencing some unnatural and disturbing events at their new home.
There is a hint of Shirley Jackson in the new/old family home. A house isolated—despite the presence of neighbour, Jed—physically and psychologically. What goes on there is not bound by the normal rules of reality, but the book this put me in mind of the most was Black House by Stephen King and Peter Straub—but maybe with a touch of Junji Ito’s masterpiece Spiral; the sense that the wrongness at the heart of the story pulls at everything around it, drawing everything from insect behaviour to Maddie’s artwork into a spiral, a whirlpool that sucks everything into its vortex.
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What sets The Book of Accidents apart from becoming a Stephen King imitation is that Chuck Wendig has his own distinctive voice, scattering the pages with turns of phrases that have a wonderfully hardboiled flavour. There are some pithy descriptions which wouldn’t be out of place in a Raymond Chandler or a Dashiell Hammett. I count this as a real skill because there is a danger with this style of writing to teeter over the knife edge into self-parody, but Wendig is skilful and self-aware enough to never overbalance.
That self-awareness comes up again with reference to Stephen King. Wendig acknowledges the thematic links with a chapter entitled ‘We all float down here’—there’s no Pennywise shapeshifting through the pages of The Book of Accidents, but the dark forces at work do shift and squirm, isolating the family members, making them vulnerable to attack.
Subtle variations in tone and language choice between characters to signify the narrative focus of that chapter provide a neat insight into the ensemble cast and do that insidious thing good writers will do; make you care what happens to these characters. Make you care enough that when events go south (it’s horror, this is inevitable), it hurts.
And isn’t that what you want from a horror film focused on a family? Don’t you want it to hurt? Don’t you want the horror to get under your skin and sink its teeth into you?
Well, this is exactly what I want from my horror and Chuck Wendig delivers it in The Book of Accidents.
By: Ed Hartland
The Book of Accidents is available 20th July from Penguin Books