US Trade Hardcover First
247 Pages ; Price: $27.00
Date Reviewed: 02-13-02
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel
At its best, supernatural horror fiction can get under the skin of its characters -- and readers -- more effectively than other genre. Henry James demonstrated this in 'The Turn of the Screw', and the ghost of Henry James hovers in the background of Tim Lebbon's excellent new novel, 'Face'. With a single sly and subtle supernatural invasion, Lebbon deconstructs a modern family unit into its isolated personalities, and then dissects each of these into the sum of his or her fears. It's a virtuoso performance, disturbing and compelling. Lebbon is a smart writer, who focuses on characters and not supernatural special effects. He makes you care enough about the Powell family to follow them into a very personal hell.
The descent begins on a cold winter night, when the Powells -- father Dan, mother Megan and 16 year old daughter Nikki -- are driving home in a blizzard. In the midst of a forest, by the side of the road, they see a stranger in the snow. Good souls one and all, they decide to pick him up. But polite conversation quickly takes an enigmatic turn.
'"Where's home for you?" he asked.
"Nowhere and everywhere."
"Right. So you want me to drop you where?"
The stranger then makes a mysterious and rather ominous request. '"What I want is, a moment of your time."'
The stranger doesn't remain a stranger however: "'What's your name?" Nikki asked, suddenly uncomfortable sitting next to someone who could be anyone.
"Brand," the man said. "As in burn, mark, seal, scar of ownership. I have a brand, its meaning is one and all. Would you like to see?"'
It's not long before Dan tosses Brand out of the car, but he's not so easily ejected from their lives. What follows is a vivisection of the family's hopes, desires, weaknesses and fears.
The next day 'devil's footprints', the kind of phenomenon reported in Charles Fort's 'Book of the Damned' make an appearance around the Powell's yard and in the village to which they have recently moved. It's a bad sign. For while all of them still think of Brand with fear, and believe that he might be planning a revenge, none of them will discuss their fears with the others.
The Powells have moved to this rural location after Megan was attacked in the city, to find peace and protection. Megan's religious tendencies were exaggerated in the wake of the attack and now in the wake of Brand's mysterious appearance and disappearance, they head into realms of fancy and pure superstition. She begins to believe that Brand is using small animals, birds, spiders, mice to spy upon her. Dan meets up with an uncharacteristically compliant Brand and pummels him outside of a bar, overcompensating for his inability to protect his wife so long ago. And Nikki fears and desires him in her awakening teenage sexuality.
As Lebbon plunges into the fears of his characters, he does a gripping job making them sympathetic enough to follow but frail enough to fear talking to one another. Brand easily manipulates them into a crescendo of terror and self-incrimination. It's open to question as to whether or not he's even real. Lebbon uses the supernatural with an artist's skill and a philosopher's intellect. Like Henry James, he wants to bring the inner demons to light and let them have their day -- and night.
Readers will have their day as well, though the tension is almost as unbearable for them as it is for the characters. Thankfully, Lebbon is up to the task of taking this whirlwind into a terrorizing but satisfying finale. All the time, he keeps the action small-scale, and the focus is on how the characters' weaknesses act against them. It's an amazing bit of suspense writing that deserves a wide audience. 'Face' may not be on your megamart's bookshelves, but visit your local bookseller and order this small-press wonder. Like the mysterious hitchhiker who makes this family's life a chilling hell, 'Face' will return to haunt the reader long after you think you've left the book behind.