Monday, April 12, 2010

DARK MOUNTAIN by Richard Laymon

Scott and Flash are old Air Force buddies. They served together in Vietnam, and while they have grown apart over the years since the war they are still friends. The two men decide it’s time to renew acquaintances and plan a joint backpacking trip into the backcountry of central California. It is a trip that both families are looking forward too, with the exception of the usual grousing from Scott’s teenage daughter Julie, and Flash’s twin girls. It doesn’t help Julie’s mood that Scott’s new girlfriend, Karen, is along.

The troupe sets off on a weeklong pack trip in good spirits. Their route is set, and the terrain is rugged and more than a little beautiful. The two older children—Julie and Flash’s teenage son Nick—take an instant liking to each other. The families congeal nicely, and Mr Laymon deftly creates their interpersonal discourse and squabbles with his usual light and charming touch. The dialogue and patter have the flair of both likability and believability. 
The trip takes a downward turn when one the Flash’s twin girls sprains her ankle and the group has to make an unplanned stop for the day at an ugly treeless lake called Lower Mesquite. The park ranger told them to steer clear of the lake because there are several lakes with much more to offer. The group, however, makes the best of the unplanned stop and settles in for the night. Unfortunately their trip takes another unpleasant turn when Karen is brutally attacked in the short hours of the night.
Dark Mountain is an example of what Richard Laymon did well—its characters are likable, in that foreshadowed horror manner that keeps the audience a touch uneasy about getting too close because they know that the character will likely not make it to the end. The story is tight and controlled. It is dialogue rich, and the action is well placed to build both suspense and unease. 
There are also glimpses of Laymon’s weaknesses, or, more aptly, his excesses. The dialogue is rich and, at times, humorous, but at moments it is overdone and annoying. The characters have a habit of over talking the situation and curbing its potential suspense. There are also brief, much more brief than usual, graphic sex scenes, including a rape scene, that tend to be less pivotal to the story and more ludicrous. Although the graphic sex has a teenage boy wholesomeness to it that only Richard Laymon could accomplish.
Dark Mountain is not in the top echelon of Richard Laymon’s work—The Traveling Vampire Show, In the Dark, Night in the Lonesome October—but it is a solid horror-suspense novel. It opens as the standard wilderness horror story, but Laymon takes it to unexpected places. It twists from the backwoods of California to the streets of Los Angeles. There is witchcraft, murder, violence, and even redemption. It is a novel that will appeal to fans of Richard Laymon, horror, particularly horror films, and even those with a taste for suspense.
Dark Mountain was originally published in the United States under the title Tread Softly as by Richard Kelly. It was published in 1987 and, under its original title, is nearly impossible to find. It was published in the United Kingdom with the title Dark Mountain, and has since been republished in the States, by Leisure, under the same title.


Craig Clarke said...

I have the UK edition on my shelf, but I've always passed it up in favor of others. Looks like there's a balance of good and bad here, but I'll bet it's still a good sight better than The Lake. :)

Thanks for the review.

Ben Boulden said...

I couldn't take THE LAKE. I read the first few chapters and gave it up for dead. I agree with your review that Laymon was getting better and better. His final few novels were really good.

The three titles that were released after he died were mostly disappointing. I did enjoy INTO THE FIRE, but none of the books quite seemed finished. I wondered as I was reading them what the final draft of each would have been like if Laymon had had the chance to do a rewrite or two.

MP said...

This was published by Tor Books in 1987 as "Tread Softly" by Richard Laymon. It's sitting right there on my bookshelf.

Ben Boulden said...

MP. That's interesting. I didn't realize it had been published in the United States under his own name until Leisure's recent release.

After I read your comment I found a UK edition published by W.H. Allen in the UK under the Richard Kelly pseudonym at eBay, but nothing as far as an American edition goes.

Thanks for the heads-up.

MP said...

Ben: The Tor edition, published in February of 1987 has a nice Jill Bauman cover showing a bloody tree stump with a bloody ax stuck in it, against a woodsy background. I like it more than the Leisure "Dark Mountain" cover. Tor also published two other Laymon novels, "Night Show" in 1986, two years after the copyright date, and what may be (I have no way of knowing for sure) the true first edition of "Flesh" in 1988.

Tor had what was possibly the finest horror paperback line in the 80s horror heyday. Their only serious competition in terms of quality was the Dell Abyss line that came along a bit later.

I've been a major Laymon fan from the very beginning, and even though I have some problems with Leisure I'm extremely grateful to them for the publication over the last few years of all those novels of his that we Americans originally missed because of the crash of the horror market here.