14 by Peter Clines is a novel I've been hesitant to review. Not because I've heard bad things but the opposite. Being the irritating post-apocalyptic hipster that I am, I felt the need to hold off on this one because I'd heard so much positive buzz. Reviewing this book felt like I was caving into the pressures of geekdom.
Either that or I just never got around to it until now.
Take your pick.
First of all, I'd like to comment on the utter genius of the cover. Usually, I judge a cover on whether it's serviceable to attract reader attention or not. It's a rare cover which warrants commentary and they're usually fantasy (and made in the 1980s or 1930s).
In this case, I find 14's cover to be shockingly effective as wanting me to open the book and find out what's inside. It's evocative, perhaps deliberately so, of the 4th Silent Hill game. Silent Hill 4: The Room wasn't the most popular of the franchise due to the heavy backtracking but I consider it the point before the franchise became a parody of itself and the last period when Silent Hill was genuinely scary.
It's the little things which scare me and what's more little than a locked room?
The premise of the book is Nate Tucker is a data-entry drone at a magazine with no prospects and no real future. He's a likable enough everyman and his position is familiar enough to most people my age to illicit immediately sympathy. Nate is in desperate need of a new place to live due to his roommates bailing on him, so he takes advantage of an acquaintance's suggestion to seek out an apartment building with a checkered history.
The building isn't magically perfect. It's got green cockroaches with extra-legs, bad parking, and every room is different in size. The neighbors are all a collection of weirdos with some being the desirable kind (the sexy artist girl who sunbathes on the roof) and others being less so (a militant fundamentalist always in everyone's business). Nothing, however, leaps out to say this is a dangerous place.
Well, except for the locked room on his floor.
Oh, and the room which is vacant because it's last few (dozen) occupants committed suicide.
And other things.
For $550 a month, including utilities, Nate is willing to put up with a lot. Unfortunately, these above problems are only the beginning. Peter Clines walks a careful balance between revealing the secrets of the building while not taking it to the point a reasonable person would run screaming. The characters remain likable but they also remain intelligent, which is a quality largely absent from the horror genre except for The Cabin in the Woods.
Individuals expecting a story filled with gore and murder will be disappointed as 14 is more a story of cerebral horror mixed with gradual dawning terror than shock scares. Some people have compared it to Lost with its mixture of character-building and the surreal. On my end, I consider it closer to an episode of the Twilight Zone or Outer Limits.
The relative absence of cheap scares is what makes this such an effective horror novel. Indeed, I compare it to a movie I recently reviewed called Into the Mouth of Madness. Given Into the Mouth of Madness was one of my favorite horror movies of all time, I'm not as at all unbiased here. There's a connection to the Cthulhu Mythos for fans of the series but I won't spoil that to encourage people to people to read it cold.
Really, I think a lot of horror authors could learn from Peter Clines the skill of making likable characters. All of them read as believable individuals you might meet, say, in your apartment building.
This makes any potential deaths or trauma they suffer all the more intense as you don't want them to come to a horrible end, unlike the majority of [insert profanity] who exist in horror movies as monster fodder. I'm particularly fond of the character of Xela and I kind of wish Peter would write a sequel with her (whether or not that's possible) because she's so entertaining on page.
Despite this, I'm not going to give 14 a ten out of ten. This is going to be a strange sort of complaint because it's related to much of what I find appealing about this book but I think Peter could have gone darker.
The Twilight Zone rarely needed a high body count, or one at all, to make itself the seminal work of horror television it was. However, for much of the book, things relatively lighthearted. While he does some serious damage to the characters, I expected the sheer scope of the final revelations to blast some cast members' sanity.
It's the Diet Coke of Lovecraft. Which, I say as someone who wrote a book set in the Cthulhu Mythos starring a character more akin to Conan than Giles. There's nothing wrong with Diet Coke Lovecraft, though, and I love it when it's done by Brian Lumley. I also loved it when it was done by Peter Clines. It's got more calories than Lovecraft Coke Zero and that's more than enough for me.
Buy this book. You won't regret it.
Buy at Amazon.com