T. Kingfisher meets Cassandra Khaw in a chilling horror novel that illustrates the fine line between humanity and monstrosity.
Blackwood mansion looms, surrounded by nightmare pines, atop the hill over the small town of New Haven. Ben Bookman, bestselling novelist and heir to the Blackwood estate, spent a weekend at the ancestral home to finish writing his latest horror novel, The Scarecrow. Now, on the eve of the book’s release, the terrible story within begins to unfold in real life.
Detective Mills arrives at the scene of a gruesome murder: a family butchered and bundled inside cocoons stitched from corn husks, and hung from the rafters of a barn, eerily mirroring the opening of Bookman’s latest novel. When another family is killed in a similar manner, Mills, along with his daughter, rookie detective Samantha Blue, is determined to find the link to the book—and the killer—before the story reaches its chilling climax.
As the series of “Scarecrow crimes” continues to mirror the book, Ben quickly becomes the prime suspect. He can’t remember much from the night he finished writing the novel, but he knows he wrote it in The Atrium, his grandfather’s forbidden room full of numbered books. Thousands of books. Books without words.
As Ben digs deep into Blackwood’s history he learns he may have triggered a release of something trapped long ago—and it won’t stop with the horrors buried within the pages of his book.
I will be fully transparent here and admit that The Nightmare Man completely and totally took me by surprise. It had been on my shelf for months, and I wanted to save it for this month in preparation for Halloween. I guess the cover made me think this was going to be some creature-feature kind of story, the focus being a murderous scarecrow exacting his revenge on a small town. I will happily admit that I was very, very wrong.
The Nightmare Man is an expansive tale, focusing on a wide cast of characters who are in one way or another affected by a weird string of very violent, brutal crimes. One of my favorite things ever (not an exaggeration) is the convergence of the supernatural and crime procedurals. Let me just say, this novel was my brand of weird, twisty, crime-solving antics. Author Ben Bookman writes about the stuff of nightmares; his books focus on villainous entities who scare and kill their way through each installment of Ben’s series. On top of his literary success, Ben stands to inherit the Blackwood estate along with his sister Emily. This is a dark, brooding monstrosity of an abode nestled among the trees and wilderness that formerly belonged to the Bookman siblings’ grandfather, Robert Bookman, a renowned psychologist. With all of these things going for Ben, events go terribly awry when crimes begin to be committed that mirror the events of his novels. This is where we meet Defective Mills and his daughter and also detective, Samantha. Can sense be made of the seemingly impossible?
From this point forward, I’ll continue to speak in generalities because the less you know going into this novel, the better. Based on my very brief synopsis alone, it is very clear to see there are not only a plethora of characters but also a multitude of plot lines to follow in this novel. Markert manages to present and navigate these normally overwhelming waters with ease, the result being this expansive, substantial narrative. The closest comparison I can think of that would be comparable in terms of span is Chuck Wedndig’s Black River Orchard. Both of these books present so many unique characters that are fully fleshed out with clear and distinguished personalities of their own. Embarking on such a vast journey as an author introduces the chance for readers to get lost in who is who and what plot lines are followed. This could not be further from the truth with The Nightmare Man.
One of my favorite aspects of this novel is its reliance on tropes. Many of the characters and their dynamics with each other fall on well-traversed territory; however, there is something so pleasant and comforting about reading these types of relationships when they are executed so well. For instance, Ben Bookman wrote his last novel, The Scarecrow, in a fit of creative ingenuity. The only problem is he can’t remember hardly any of it, and he has a reputation for sleepwalking. This raises extreme doubt regarding his role in the crimes committed, establishing the ever-popular trope of the unreliable narrator. Let’s also take a look at Detective Mills and his daughter Samantha who is officially called Blue around the office. Their relationship is complicated by Mills’ former alcohol addiction and Blue’s determination to prove herself. This role of a father trying to make up for past transgressions and a daughter trying to establish her independence is nothing new. Nevertheless, I was completely delighted by the way in which Markert gave life to these characters.
Additionally, there are no loose ends by the end of this novel. In combination with the plots presented in the synopsis, numerous other points of contention arise with each chapter. However, nearly every question I formed while reading was answered by the time I reached the “Acknowledgments” page. I really believe there is something to be said for not only introducing such a complex, interwoven conspiracy but for also reaching a satisfying resolution as well. And while the direction where things are heading may become apparent towards the last fourth of the book, Markert still delivers quite a few twists.
A wildly entertaining, twisty read, The Nightmare Man by J.H. Markert manages to deliver horrifying crime and drama without cutting corners on meaningful resolution. The wide expanse of characters is uniquely identified, allowing for each interaction to hold weight and excel the momentous plot right along. This is a book that is very easy to get sucked into; there is an immersive quality to the horrors that unfold within the pages. And truly, above all, it is just such a creative concept that is so well done. I cannot recommend picking up The Nightmare Man enough, especially in the days leading up to the spookiest day of the year.