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.