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Horror Fiction
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Horror used to be a genre that worked best in short form, but in the modern era - effectively, post-Stephen King - a school has arisen which prefers the large canvas of the novel. A corollary of this sea-change is that it is now not enough for a horror story to be merely scary. If dread, punctuated by moments of shock, is to be sustained throughout 400 pages, there has to be more to it than a series of boos! or even a consistent atmosphere of unease.

Stephen Dobyns's The Church of Dead Girls (Viking, pounds 9.99) is a remarkably successful novel. It takes an old-hat plot - a small American community terrorised by a serial murderer - but forces the reader to look away from the obvious and explore areas of psychological creepiness that have importance outside the world of the book. This is a novel that plays out of its genre league; it delivers not only a satisfying whodunit but also a layered portrait of a convincing community, while challenging the assumptions of many such monster-among-us tales.

Though it comes with a blurb from Stephen King, and has certain features in common with his small-town apocalypses, Dobyns's tone is closer to that of King's more mature rival, Peter Straub. The intricate plot is presented as a narrated story, though the deceptively self-effacing first- person takes account of a great many scenes at which he is not present by incorporating others' views. By telling his story from the angle of a slight outsider (a middle-aged gay schoolteacher, who almost becomes a suspect when three girls are abducted) and rooting much of the intrigue in a left-wing discussion group at the local college, Dobyns gets away from the search for the culprit to focus on the community's willingness to scapegoat its unrulier elements. This is a genuinely unsettling book, written with a rare tact and skill, but never a gratuitously shocking one. It even delivers an honest murder mystery at the heart of its examination of characters and ideas.

By contrast, two recent entries in the same rack from British authors with transatlantic ambitions are simply riffs on old tunes. Muriel Gray's Furnace (HarperCollins, pounds 9.99) is a more satisfying exercise than Peter James's The Truth (Orion, pounds 9.99), if only because Gray runs for 180 pages before the penny drops that the plot is a rerun of one of the most famous stories in the genre. James, though he opens with a feint that suggests a horrific reworking of Indecent Proposal, delivers a novel that is instantly recognisable as a literary remake; in this case, of one of the first break- out best-sellers of the genre.

Furnace is a solid bit of pretend-Americana, with a truck-driving hero who pulls into the wrong small town and runs over a new-born baby He swears he saw a local politician pushing the pram under his truck, but the Sheriff tries to convince him otherwise. The rest of the book is building weirdness as our hero gradually realises that he now has an invisible extra passenger on his big rig.

James, by contrast, gets under the skins of his convincingly flawed central characters and turns their everyday problems into a credible nightmare; but his own virtues get buried under predictable plot twists. You believe in James's people far more than Gray's, but that just means it's easier to get impatient with them for not twigging where they have heard this story before.

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