Singin’ in the dead of night…

Author: Greg Enslen

Black Bird Cover

Black Bird Cover

I admire an author who swings for the fence with his first novel.  Greg Enslen did just that back in 2003 when he published Black Bird.  No baby steps into the horror genre for this author – he went for the full-on epic battle between good and evil.  His success is not as clear as his boldness in this brave endeavor, but he definitely gets props for putting it all out there.

Black Bird, like any good horror epic, gives us two characters, Good and Evil, on which to focus.  We meet Evil first – he is Jack Terrington, serial killer.  We meet him early in his career, in the 1970s, as he flees from a pack of dogs in a small Virginia town where the sheriff has managed to sniff him out and is hot on his trail.  Luck and persistence allow him to live to kill another day, which he merrily does, across the nation, at will, for the next 20 years.  He’s lethal – without conscience, without real motive, without pattern.  He’s off the grid and no one even realizes how many murders can be attributed to this single killer.

When we meet Good, he isn’t as immediately impressive as the representative of his side of the battle.  David Beaumont is the underachieving son of that small town Virginia sheriff.  He has grown up in the shadow of his father’s legend and in his own mind feels that he must escape from this man he has come to hate.  He’s selfish, unkind and rather stupid as he plans his exit from his hometown to the sandy beaches of California – leaving behind his family, his brokenhearted ex-girlfriend and any expectations that he might get himself together and become an adult someday.  David is not quite 18 years old as the story begins in the mid-1990s.

Terrington is developed first, and developed very, very well.  He’s an evil bastard, his crimes brazen and sadistic.  Enslen does a terrific job walking the line between making sure we know that this guy is seriously twisted and not getting to deeply into the gore of the crimes.  We know what he does; we don’t need it spelled out to the last detail.  I’m impressed by both the restraint and the skill involved in presenting Evil in such a way that he’s terrifying while avoiding turning the novel into the written equivalent of torture porn.

Beaumont is developed a little later, and with some lesser degree of success.  It seems that in the attempt to make his hero human, give him flaws and make him relatable as a regular guy, Enslen leans slightly too far away from hero and too far into adolescent brat.  Perhaps it’s the relative youth of the protagonist that creates a barrier between him and true heroics.  His feelings and actions are perfectly understandable for a teenage boy, but they aren’t at all suitable for the person who needs to play Good in this battle.  In comparison to the truly menacing, terrifying Evil that is Terrington, Beaumont looks too flawed, too selfish, too young and not even remotely equipped to exhibit the kind of selflessness required of a really effective Good character.

Enter the peripherals.  A meteorologist tracking a super storm approaching Virginia.  A rookie CIA agent working with the first mega-computer able to compile data from across the country.   A former sheriff’s deputy who worked with Beaumont’s father back in the day.  A flock of birds that appear occasionally and mysteriously to observe and sometimes nudge the action forward.  Together, these characters not only fill out the story, adding elements to the battle, but also help buff up the Good side of the equation.  It turns out that David Beaumont doesn’t have to carry the mantle of Good solely on his inadequate shoulders.  The stories of these peripherals are scattered into the book, a chaos of unconnected chapters slowly coalescing into the scene for the Epic Showdown.

The scope of Black Bird is admirable.  Taking place over 20 years, involving characters from vastly different walks of life, putting regular folks into massively irregular situations – there’s no way to avoid a Stephen King comparison.  There are worse role models when you’re writing a horror epic and in many respects Enslen does the genre proud.  He’s got his characters in place; he knows how to develop them and generally has his plot ducks in a row.  The single major element that appears to be missing from this book is an editor.  It really, really, really needs and editor.  Really.  There are typos, missing words and other random annoyances.  More importantly, though, there are sections that need to be cut way back – or left out entirely.  Far, far too much time is devoted to the new, impressive computer.  Enslen is telling us things that are dated and (now) elementary – his level of detail in doing so is completely unnecessary.  We understand that this was all new and special in the period during which the book takes place – but even if the book had been published long before you could perform many of the tasks he describes on your Smart Phone (and it sort of was – 2003 is a long time ago in computer years), we still wouldn’t need endless stream of technical specs on this machine.  The same is true of the meteorologist.  Nobody else thinks the storm is going to be big.  He does.  We know it’s going to hit Virginia just in time for the Epic Battle – the whole issue needs about 1/10 of the time it receives.

The result of either no editor or one without the courage to cut is that large portions of the book feel like filler.  They’re unnecessary to the story and add nothing in terms of character or plot development.  The book weighs in at a hefty 522 pages – it needs a serious diet.

In the end, I did enjoy Black Bird.  It isn’t quite as epic as the author’s ambition, but he writes a hell of a bad guy and his team approach to the Good side of the equation is interesting and works pretty well.  On the down side, the book drags badly in places and needs some serious editing.  3 stars out of 5 and recommended for fans of horror epics only.

— S. Millinocket

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Sue Millinocket
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