David Jacob Knight is one of my favorite independent horror authors. After his debut with The Pen Name, last year, I was eager to get into his next work. David Jacob Knight had a very Stephen King meets David Lynch-esque style with surrealism mixed with horror. The Phone Company continues this trend, taking on nightmarish qualities of a dream set in a small town where everything goes wrong.
The premise is about an evil cellphone company which sets up shop in the aforementioned small town. We know from the beginning they're involved in all sorts of occult shenanigans but not what they want. They proceed to pass out cellphones which allow their owners to spy on each other, perform impossible actions, talk back, and even play psychotic games where you commit murder with mind-controlled surrogates.
The citizens of said town shown a remarkably blase attitude to the fact their phones are acting like they're possessed well before the really weird stuff starts happening. In real-life, people routinely throw fits about things like Grand Theft Auto or Manhunter but we have the moral guardians missing their children playing the most realistic "murder simulator" ever created.
The fact I'm expected to take the idea of an "evil video game" making people psychotic is a misstep in this novel I can't quite forgive given how much I've had to deal with idiots who believe it's a danger in real-life without the aforementioned occult shenanigans. It's a bit like David Jacob Knight writing a third novel and it starring the Satanic power of Dungeons and Dragons.
Thankfully, the book gains some of its social satire bite by switching to the more realistic problem of cyber-bullying and privacy issues. The Phone Company's supernatural abilities allow the all-too-influenceable minds of the town's teenagers to fall prey to using their phones to destroy their rivals at school and publicize their darkest secrets. Given real-life children have committed suicide because of the ability for embarrassment to reach the entire world, this is not a bad angle to handle.
The book goes a bit too far, though, keeping an ongoing subplot with a school shooting it suffered as that detracted from the main story. There's enough material to satirize with the evils of social media and human banality without having to dip your toe into that particular well of blackness. On the plus side, the book emphasizes several times technology is not evil but serves as a reflection of humanity. The book's opinion of humanity is, of course, that we're vain, petty, superficial little trolls.
Which I agree with!
Much of the book's strength is it doesn't attempt to do the Stephen King thing of starting things off normal and getting progressively weirder. No, things start off pretty weird get weirder until they're absolutely bat**** crazy. There's many memorable dream-like scenes which are truly horrifying in their surreality. One of my favorites was an homage to Carrie only cranked to the eleven.
Fans expecting to start at a "normal" town will be confused, however, as things have always been weird here. The ending, in particular, is just plain crazy and rivals The Illuminatus Trilogy for sheer random "what the **** was that?"-ness. I was back and forth on the leads with sometimes them being strong characters and sometimes not, but they were more a backdrop for the author's vivid imagination in horror than "realistic" characters.
In conclusion, this is a good horror novel but not a traditional one. It's best read for its nightmarish and random imagery. Like Silent Hill, it's strong when it focuses on the metaphorical and visual rather than the character interaction. None of the characters are bad, mind you, but it's when things go bizarre that the book gets enjoyable. I couldn't care less about the lead family's internal problems, for instance. I also did like the books attempt at social satire, even if it took on too many targets.