Michael Slade, Death's Door (Onyx, 2002; Cemetery Dance, 2004)

"Michael Slade" is a pseudonym. Originally representing three Vancouver, B.C., criminal insanity trial lawyers (John Banks, Jay Clarke, and Richard Covell), the personnel has changed over the years, with Jay Clarke the only one of the original three remaining to carry the mantle (like The Cure, only with books). Death's Door, the ninth novel in the "Special X" series, was written by Clarke with his daughter Rebecca. It is their second novel as a team.

In 1984, Slade came on the scene as a new voice in extreme horror with his debut novel, Headhunter. Besides having one of the great twist endings of the day, the novel was also unapologetic in its description of the particularly gruesome murders within its pages. But it was with Slade's second novel, Ghoul, that people really began to take notice. With rock and roll as a major theme, it caught on particularly well with the younger crowd who had grown tired of Stephen King and were looking for something more intense.

Groundbreaking at the time, those early novels are now starting to appear on horror "best of" lists, showing their enduring appeal and influence on the next generation of horror writers unafraid to lovingly describe the most disturbing of sequences and characters. Mounties Robert DeClerq and Zinc Chandler, originally in separate novels, but now often crossing paths, have become familiar to legions of readers through this series with such provocative titles as Burnt Bones, Primal Scream, Evil Eye, and Cutthroat.

Death's Door concerns myriad subject matters, all of which are meant to tie together into a cohesive narrative, but some of which seem to have been included merely for shock value. Ancient Egypt and mummification play a role in the search for eternal youth, as does an almost-overbearing focus on plastic surgery; two of the characters specialize in it, for similar reasons, and two of the recurring characters have gone under the knife, for very different reasons. Conversely, the search for quicker death -- either through progeria research or an Internet snuff film group -- takes up most of the rest of the book. Along the way, we are subjected to canine attacks, sexual torture, and a couple of long digressions on the history of mummification and the importance of profiling based on geography and sexual patterns (or paraphilias).

The most interesting aspect of the book is its inside view into the workings of the fictitious Special External Section ("Special X") of the very real Royal Canadian Mounted Police, including the relationships between the different police personnel and the often difficult act of cooperating across borders. Also, Slade is creating some of the most disturbing characters in recent fiction, likely due to the level of outside research that goes into the creation of each book (there's even a bibliography!). The Cemetery Dance edition features very provocative dustjacket artwork by multi-award-winning illustrator Alan Clark and, in the novel, a surprising cameo appearance by Alfred Hitchcock and Grace Kelly, doing something you'll never see onscreen.

Always sensationalistic, Slade has somewhere along the way descended from being merely engagingly over-the-top into self-parody, with a selection of flaws making Death's Door a struggle to get through. Among Slade's unfortunate habits are: hitting the reader over the head with so-called "shocking" revelations through an overabundance of sentence-fragment paragraphs; a striking indecisiveness over whether to be boldly gruesome or coyly euphemistic, sometimes in the same chapter; a tendency to severely overuse the title phrase in not entirely appropriate situations; an excess of unfunny jokes and bad puns (and there is another kind); and simply poor style choice ("YAAAAAA!" is self-explanatory within the context and does not require a line per letter to get the point across).

All of this made Death's Door a struggle to finish. I found it difficult to pick up the book once I had laid it down, though the denouement was compelling enough. The open ending foreshadows a subsequent novel, but I can't see myself picking it up. Slade offered my adolescent brain some fine escapism in the day -- for which I am thankful -- but now I can simply no longer tolerate this poor quality of writing.

[Craig Clarke]

The Michael Slade Web site