I’ve reviewed three Nate Southard titles in past installments of this blog — He Stepped Through, Scavengers, and This Little Light of Mine — with mostly very positive things to say. I thus approached his latest novel, Lights Out from Thunderstorm Books, with no small amount of anticipation.
Similar to Tim Curran’s Fear Me, which I also reviewed earlier, Lights Out features a federal prison setting, a locale that is absolutely rife with possibilities for horror. In Southard’s take on the theme, the venue is Burnham State Maximum Security Penitentiary, home to murderers, rapists and other violent felons, and the story is related primarily from the viewpoints of Warden Ronald Timms, Father Darren Albright, and a handful of guards and prisoners, most notably the leaders of four prison factions — the Italians, the Mexicans, the African-Americans, and the White Supremacists.
Not surprisingly, most of the characters are portrayed in a less than sympathetic fashion, Father Albright being the lone exception, a fact that detracts somewhat from the reader’s emotional involvement in the novel. When the characters begin to die at the hands of supernatural creatures that originate from a cavern beneath the prison, it’s difficult to manufacture much empathy or concern.
One obvious aspect of a prison setting that just begs to be exploited in a horror novel is the sense of being trapped, and Southard leverages this feature to the fullest, frequently creating a sense of desperate confinement and claustrophobia, as in the following passage, from the viewpoint of a prisoner trapped in his cell:
“The creature let out a slow hiss, and the reek of its breath grew stronger. Something squealed over the metal, a sound like a braking train. Hall tried to turn his head away, but the muscles of his neck and shoulders refused to obey. He tried to close his eyes, but the lids refused to drop, leaving him helpless to do anything but stare as the thing in the tiny window peered in at him, smiling its horrific smile.”
The exact nature of the supernatural menace in Lights Out is not revealed until more than halfway through the story (although there are certainly hints), so I’m not going to spoil that element of the plot by disclosing it here, but suffice to say that the creatures in question are rendered in a convincing and sometimes chilling fashion.
Even when the creatures begin to venture further from their dark holes, threatening to overrun the prison, Lights Out, like most every supernatural horror novel, has its requisite disbeliever — a characters who refuse to acknowledge the existence of something beyond human ken. Warden Timms fills the role of the primary doubter, as expressed here:
“Darren would blow a gasket, something about lying and prisoners’ rights as human beings. And Ray and Albright both would accuse him of trying to bury the real problem. They were telling him monsters had come to Burnham, though, and no matter how grisly the recent murders had been, he refused to believe that kind of bullshit. He had to live in the real world, one where people were killed on a daily basis by means that were anything but supernatural, and he had neither the time nor the will to even entertain such ridiculous notions.”
Lights Out is fast-paced, engaging, and filled with action. What it lacks, to some degree, is a sense of genuineness, a grounding in prison trappings that would better enable a suspension of disbelief. It’s not surprising that this sense of realism is lacking at times, because it’s difficult to pull off this kind of setting effectively, particularly in the area of dialog. Even though I (like most readers) may not know what prison slang and chatter really sounds like, I know what sounds realistic to my ears. That sense of realism is something that Tom Fontana achieved magnificently for the HBO series Oz, and that David Simon similarly accomplished for the crime-ridden streets of Baltimore in the HBO series The Wire. Southard makes an admirable attempt here, but seems to falter at times.
Despite the misgivings outlined above, Lights Out is still a book with a hook, a novel that will lock up many readers and not release them until they’ve completed the last sentence.