Jay Bonansinga, Oblivion (Cemetery Dance Publications, 2004)
Martin Delaney is an ex-priest trying to hide from the personal demons that have haunted him for the past twenty years. Using alcohol as a means of blocking the memories of a failed exorcism, he works with troubled kids in a church sponsored service group. Time passes without incident until Jim Dodd, a former altar boy when Martin was still in the priesthood, comes to ask Martin for a favor. He wants Martin to perform a ritual cleansing of a house that seems to be haunted. Jim keeps the information about the house a secret, under orders of the family who now live there, giving only the barest of information to the former exorcist. Martin decides to accept the challenge, and is escorted, blindfolded, to an undisclosed location. This starts a series of events that leads him to a house where the spirits of the past threaten the future in ways no one had anticipated, leaving Martin to wonder if any attempt at cleansing the house could be successful.
Since much of the story has to do with the house itself, I can't really discuss more than that without giving too much away. But I can say that this story engaged me almost immediately. Mr. Bonansinga tells a captivating tale. He's an excellent storyteller who knows how to pace his narrative, and seems to understand when to hint at, and when to reveal, his bogeys. And although the house he mentions is a historic one, he pulls you into the tale with such force that I left my initial concerns at the door and just went along for the ride.
The characters are intriguing, but since the house is the star of the show, most of them are introduced only briefly. Martin Delaney, the lead character and the one whose own narrative tells the tale, is the lynchpin of this novel. His is a well developed character who has flaws and tries to rise above them. This is a character I would love to see in a future novel; a prequel describing his days as a priest, perhaps?
There are nods to great exorcists, real and fictional; the real-life Jesuit Pierre Teilhard de Chardin is mentioned in the same breath as Father Lankester Merrin from The Exorcist, and later, a hat is tipped to Father Karras from the same story. The author blends the factual with the fictional seamlessly, expanding the mythology of a famous tale without overshadowing his own.
The only thing that keeps haunting me about this novel is Mr. Bonansinga's "kitchen sink" approach to the story. He adds so many plot twists and addendums that the story starts to sag under the weight. That most of these changes happened during the last hundred or so pages broke up the story for me as I struggled to blend the new items into one overall, compelling story. A lesser storyteller would have had a real mess on his hands, but in this case the story holds together but only just. It's not the novel that it could have been if the excess had been trimmed and the story stuck to the initial idea of how the evil that men do weigh upon a house, though. Or if certain twists had been introduced or hinted at earlier in the narrative. The ending had the feel of another book entirely, and seemed tacked on, which was disappointing, given the promise of the first few parts. In addition, there are several typographical and grammatical errors, which I didn't expect in a signed first edition.
I would have really enjoyed an afterword by the author. With haunted house tales, there are always references to the history of the house in question. Usually the information presented is nothing more than an offshoot of the author's tale, but in this instance Mr. Bonansinga deals with a house that has a real background. When dealing with historical information, I'm always keen on learning how an author researched his or her topic, and, most especially, what parts are true and what parts exist wholly in the author's imagination. Hopefully future editions of this book will include a bit of insight on how he fleshed out his story. I've been known to say that a well crafted introduction or afterword can be more enjoyable than the novel itself, but in this instance even the casual reader would come away with a greater appreciation of the work if Mr. Bonansinga included a small peek into his creative process.
This is a novel best read on a dark, rainy night with the wind rattling the windowpanes. The author tells a fast-paced tale that is easy to read and introduces a lead character well worth getting to know. If this novel fulfilled the promise of the first hundred pages, this would have the makings of an instant classic. As it is, it is a fun story to down in one sitting if you want to scare yourself silly on a dark, stormy night.
Check out Cemetery
Jay Bonansinga has his own Web site, which has tips for the aspiring writer,
and essays that have the same breezy, inviting style this novel has.