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The Boys Are Back In Town by Christopher Golden

01/06/2010. Contributed by Paul Skevington

Buy The Boys Are Back In Town in the USA - or Buy The Boys Are Back In Town in the UK

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pub: Bantam Spectra. 421 page paperback. Price: $ 6.99 (US), $8.99 (CAN). ISBN: 978-0-553-58615-2.

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American filmic horror has in the last twenty years or so often adopted a tired high school set-up that feels increasingly restrictive with each successive iteration. This could merely point towards its success as a format. Its focus on teen-agers appeals to the current culture's obsession with youth and allows the work to include characters more sympathetic to the target audience. For most pieces, though, the weaknesses inherent in towing this particular line far outweigh any potential benefit one might hope to accrue.

Whilst 'The Boys Are Back In Town' is far superior to the majority of Hollywood fear-jerkers, I can't help but feel the legacy of those works in this book.

In the novel, a journalist named Will James returns home to attend a high school reunion. Things seem to be going well until he is informed that a friend, with whom he has been corresponding recently, died years ago. This is the first of many incongruities that he encounters, alterations that cause his memories to shift disturbingly. Despite this, he holds on to a vision of the reality that he remembers and determines to discover the truth behind the malevolent force that seems to be systematically destroying his life.

Although the book deals with adult characters in a contemporary setting, there are multiple flashbacks and much of the action takes place in the past, when Will was a young student. Christopher Golden seems acutely aware of the danger of adopting clichéd high-school archetypes from literature or film, but this leads to an opposite problem, an uncomfortable feeling that the author is trying too hard to overturn preconceptions. Examples of this are the sports-hero who is actually quite a nice guy and the home-coming queen who is not a complete bitch. It is a problem that stems from a novel where the characters are functional, but not fully developed. It is difficult to avoid comparisons with Stephen King's 'It', which also features a dual time-line but which centres on a more fully rounded and cohesive group of protagonists.

Oddly, this fast and loose approach to characterisation is also the source of the book's main strength, as the author chooses immediate involvement in the plot as his prime consideration and succeeds remarkably well in this respect. Certainly, this book owes much of its structure to the detective novel and the complexity of these trappings differentiates it from its less successful celluloid brethren. Although the identity of the perpetrator of these heinous acts does become ever more obvious towards the latter end of the novel, by this point the reader has been captured by the tantalising drip-feed of information and is fully invested in the book's climatic scene.

The author supports the increasing tension with some effective supernatural villains, which show the characteristic Golden attributes, appearing at first to be sinister beings straight out of a fairytale forest, albeit one much darker than you would find in even the most macabre tales of that ilk. Shadowy nothings, they feel like the intrusion of absence, and work upon our basic unease of the void to elicit the appropriate reaction in us. However, once it becomes apparent that the exact form of the menace is mainly a functional one, the horror drains away; which is not a complete failure as this book was clearly never intended to be a straight-forward chiller.

Working in tandem with these tools is the unique way in which Golden deals with alterations to the time-line. Rather than utilising the standard device of having your protagonist experience some form of down-time between the changing events, they occur before Will's eyes, often without warning. This creates a shifting, unstable world and removes any need for awkward pauses that might interrupt the pacing. This is a fast descent into madness unlike any we've seen before.

Some parts of the book do prove problematic. In particular, its treatment of women is still something that makes me mildly uncomfortable, although I believe this effect is not intentional on the part of the author and has resulted somewhat from the exigencies of the plot. It is difficult to deny, though, that the function of women within the book is principally as victims, even when they are seemingly infused with power. The women in the book are crucially defined by their relations to the men; a flaw that one can speculate is linked to my issue regarding characterisation.

'The Boys Are Back In Town' is a difficult novel. Whilst part of me wishes to recommend it based solely on the parts of it that do work, which are many, another finds itself disappointed that the minor flaws it possesses do the piece such a disfavour. My first instincts win out in this case, in the hope that other readers will experience the closing of Will's time-trap. This is a good entry point into Christopher Golden's other works.

Paul Skevington

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