‘The Dark Game’ by Jonathan Janz

TITLE: The Dark Game

AUTHOR: Jonathan Janz

GENRE: Horror, Thriller

PUBLISHER: Flame Tree Press

PUBLICATION DATE: 11th April 2019

MY RATING: 5/5

Blurb

“Ten writers are selected for a summer-long writing retreat with the most celebrated and reclusive author in the world. Their host is the legendary Roderick Wells. Handsome, enigmatic, and fiendishly talented, Wells promises to teach his pupils about writing, about magic, about the untapped potential that each of them possesses. Most of all, he plans to teach them about the darkness in their hearts. The writers think they are signing up for a chance at riches and literary prestige. But they are really entering the twisted imagination of a deranged genius, a lethal contest pitting them against one another in a struggle for their sanity and their lives. They have entered into Roderick Wells’s most brilliant and horrible creation. The Dark Game.”

Thoughts and Opinions

“Storytellers have existed since the beginning of time. Even though society regards them as mere entertainers, their role is a sacred one. An essential one. And though they deal in fantasy, in fabrication, the essence of their power resides in truth. No one is more honest than the storyteller. No one has greater power. They have the ability to create life…or bring death.”

Telling stories is not a skill that everyone has been blessed with in equal measure. While some of us struggle just to make events seem coherent, others are able to weave wild narrative into vivid settings and elicit a diverse range of visceral emotions. Where Lovecraft was able to terrorize readers with wild tales of monsters and horrific gods, Tolkein mesmerized with wondrous tales of fantastic worlds and beings, and Shakespeare…well he did it all. But what about Jonathan Janz, the US horror writer behind the upcoming novel The Dark Game? Does he have this storytelling ability?… Absolutely!

“Writing instructors correctly point out that a villain needs to be the hero of his story, but what they forget is that the villain also needs to be frightening. In fact, I’d argue that the effectiveness of a story is directly correlated to the threat posed by the antagonist.”

At the heart of The Dark Game is the reclusive, enigmatic, and highly successful Roderick Wells. From even before his first on-page introduction, his malignant presence haunts everything about the story, like some sort of god from the pages of Lovecraft or Poe. As an author, he has a sort of meta-literary awareness of what he is and the effectiveness of his pervasive and lingering menace is truly intense. Indeed, that pervasiveness spreads through the help that he employs around him, from the unsettling butler/handyman to the quiet but ever-present maid, and it is hard not to feel somewhat suffocated by just the mere thought of him at any given moment.

Joining Wells at his estate is a group of writers invited to take part in a writing retreat / competition. They’re certainly a diverse group that bring much to the table with regards to their attitudes, personalities, and back stories. However I did feel that, at times, there was a struggle to provide each with truly unique voices to distinguish them all from one another. Despite these occasional difficulties, the dynamic nature in which many of them are written ultimately makes for satisfying reading while also helping to keep the plot moving forward at a frenetic pace.

“Wells called it a place of magic, and it was. But the magic was of the darkest, most demented sort.”

While The Dark Game’s ability to unsettle readers may predominantly come from the monster at its core, it is actually rooted (somewhat literally) in the mysterious Wells estate. With so many characters and narratives, it could have been easy for the setting to be somewhat overlooked, but the role of the Wells estate is written almost perfectly. Ultimately, much like the eponymous setting of Shirley Jackson’s Haunting of Hill House, the Wells estate plays a central role in proceedings. Almost immediately it evokes contradictory feelings of entrapment and isolation while helping to exacerbate Wells’ malevolence and, as the story develops, so does the influence of Wells’ estate. So much so, in fact, that by the end of the book it began to feel like a part of Lovecraft’s infamous Miskatonic Valley, somewhere I would be terrified to ever find myself.

As a book that seemingly draws upon many significant authors from the horror, thriller, and mystery genres, The Dark Game does a phenomenal job at taking ideas that have been seen before and presenting them in ways that are both novel and exciting. Having the plot focused around writing allows for a level of self-awareness and self-reference that hints at the processes that went into the writing of the book, which, on a personal level, provided a level of satisfaction and enjoyment that I’ve not had from a book in quite some time. The game may be dark, but it’s a hell of a lot of fun.

Thanks to Flame Tree Press and NetGalley for the ARC

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