REVIEW #3 - IN BLACK - Robert Essig

Released: March, 2016 | Published by: Grand Mal Press



Robert Essig is an author I’ve admired since I read his novella Cemetery Tour in the Post Mortem Press anthology The Road to Hell in 2011, but due to the heinous plots of distraction gremlins and the overall malarkey of daily life, I hadn’t read any of his work again until I picked up In Black for the sake of this review. I don’t know what took me so long but I’m glad I’ve finally seen the error of my ways. After burning through this novel in less than a day, I immediately added his next book (whatever that may be; Death Obsessed?) to my to-be-read pile. You should, too.

In Black is the story of a mysterious black paint that opens a portal to another reality. Chase Little—our main character—is hired by a little old woman to paint a closet door in a suburban house. As soon as he finishes the bizarre project (who hires a professional painter for one closet door?), though, the woman shoves him through the barrier into a nightmarish dungeon where he immediately encounters a horrifying creature beyond his comprehension. Chase barely escapes the ordeal with his life and resolves to destroy the paint as soon as possible. Unfortunately for him, it doesn’t quite work out that way. In a panic, he burns the woman’s house down and flees town with his girlfriend in tow, fearing that he will be prosecuted for murder. From there, things only get worse for him…and really for anyone who encounters the cursed paint.

I read a lot of horror books but there are two authors in particular who have always been among my favorites: Clive Barker and HP Lovecraft. Clive Barker has a supreme talent for prose with an enviable history of creating the monsters inside our closets (or at least mine). HP Lovecraft writes about the untrustworthy nature of reality and the thin fabric of perception that separates us from the cosmic horrors of the universe at large. Essig harnesses elements of both authors in this story to complement his own authorial flair, so it’s really no wonder that I enjoyed the hell out of it. Even before conducting the interview below, I was wondering whether or not the book had been inspired by Barker’s Weaveworld. Not just due to the concept of a portal to another world through a seemingly mundane object, either, which could just as easily have been inspired by Lovecraft’s work. No, the horrifying creatures that populate the pages of In Black are so bizarre and disturbing that it seems only Barker himself could have imagined them, and that is a high compliment indeed. There is something oddly beautiful in Essig’s monsters, perhaps because they are so terrible and alien that our minds shape them into more of a feeling than an image. That won’t stop you from picturing Keri behind every closed door once you finish reading, though. I still shudder at the thought.

The thrust of the story resides in the range of characters who encounter the black paint and how they each decide to use it. As the paint changes hands, we catch glimpses of the dark side of the human psyche in several forms. One man uses it to kidnap women and keep them locked away where no law enforcement official can reach them. Another uses it to exact revenge on his unsuspecting former classmates whom he blames for his homelessness. Even Keri uses the rug for sinister purposes beyond what is normal in her culture, although she can’t necessarily be classified as human. Nearly all of the characters in the story—be they predator or prey—are flawed individuals with issues ranging from drug addiction and alcoholism to sloth and uncontrolled rage, and while these flaws provide us with insight into the terrible decisions they make, it still begs the larger question of what we the readers would do if we had access to the paint. What inner demons would emerge if we knew we could create our own reality to play out our fantasies without any threat of consequence from the outside world? If In Black is any indication of what an average Joe would do with that kind of power, I really don’t want to find out, but that’s also what makes the book impossible to put down. The events beyond the portal are a train-wreck of colossal proportions.

Yet while most of the characters have inherently selfish and short-sighted motivations for employing the paint, Chase Little provides the reader with some relief in terms of identifiability. He has no interest in using the compound to indulge cruel fantasies. I mean, he does take the paint from the house at the beginning of the story which at least suggests that he is tempted to use it, and he never really has a chance to play out the impulse completely since he runs off with Leah right away. But at least given the evidence we have to work with, it still doesn’t seem like he would use the paint in a destructive capacity like the others, and that makes him instantly likable when contrasted to literally everyone else in the story. On top of that, Chase’s reactions in high-pressure situations are the most understandable and most realistic of almost any character I’ve read in a novel recently. He doesn’t always do the right thing. He makes mistakes that lead to more mistakes, which ultimately lead to outright tragedy, but he’s not the cool, calm, and collected Mary Sue we encounter in most stories, and that’s another point in his favor as far as this reader is concerned.

One interesting aspect of the novel is Essig’s use of space (meaning location) as a weapon throughout, both in terms of the portals created by the black paint and the real world surroundings of each character. In fact, I’ve never read a book that took place on Earth (purposely leaving out sci-fi stories where the very surface of the planet is toxic…or the vacuum of outer space itself) where the physical environment could be characterized as a villain in and of itself. This device is most apparent beyond the paint, but Chase has several interesting encounters with untrustworthy surroundings. He is the prime suspect in his girlfriend’s disappearance and also believes he’s still on the hook for Keri’s murder, so even the real world is a hostile place for him. Beyond the paint, nightmare creatures await his return, so that’s no help. At one point, he even winds up in a garbage dump with disease-infested needles poking up from the refuse around him. He has literally nowhere to run away from his demons, and his paranoia is catching.

I said it before but it bears repeating: I enjoyed the hell out of this book. I wish it had been longer mostly so I could hear more about Keri’s origins, and as an author, I think that’s one of the highest compliments you can pay to a story once you’ve finished reading it. Robert Essig doesn’t hold anything back in In Black. It’s the sort of balls-to-the-wall horror that makes you want to cleanse your reading palate afterwards because it’s so intense, grotesque, and unflinching that you need to ingest some lighter material just to interact with normal society again. These kinds of books are exactly why I love horror. Essig’s view of humanity’s deepest desires is bleak and stomach-turning, but that’s the reality of our species. We’re brutal. We hold grudges. We want to punish people for thinking they’re better than us. In Black shows what happens when we do, and it’s not apparent in the horror itself. It’s in the futility of the whole morbid exercise. I just hope to God the paint doesn’t really exist or we’re all screwed.

INTERVIEW WITH THE AUTHOR

As both a reader and writer, I always have loads of questions for the author after I finish a book. I also think it’s important to give writers an opportunity to explain some of the how and why of their work, since they aren’t afforded that opportunity elsewhere when potential readers are considering their novel. To that end, I reached out to Robert with some questions that had been eating away at me since I finished In Black.

JW: In Black features terrifying creatures that are sure to give readers nightmares for weeks. I generally don’t ask this because it’s a very broad question (and feel free to pass on it), but what was the inspiration behind the story, specifically the creatures themselves and the idea of paint from another world creating a portal? Were there any books/movies/authors in particular that helped mold In Black?

RE: Inspiration strikes anywhere at any time and it cannot be denied. Several years ago I was painting a bathroom for a curmudgeon old man. The general contractor told me the paint was on the front porch. I found a can of brown paint so dark it was almost black. Unusual for a bathroom, but what the hell. Who am I to judge? I’m about two walls in when I get this feeling like I’m creating a pit of darkness, and soon it feels as if once all the walls are painted I could just fall into their inky depths and become lost forever. Naturally, I thought about the old man luring me there for nefarious purposes. As far as the outside influences from books, movies, etc., they are on more of a subconscious level. I’ve always loved the creatures portrayed in Clive Barker’s fiction and artwork. Lovecraft’s “The Music of Erich Zann” comes to mind, though in that story a dark void is created from melancholy music (I haven’t read it in fifteen years, so I hope that’s as accurate as I recall). Now that I think about it, the rug that Paul uses later in the novel is a subconscious nod to Barker’s Weaveworld.

JW: Setting plays a very active role in the story, whether it’s Keri’s house, the greenhouse, the portal itself, the garbage dump, or any number of shoddy hotel rooms. In fact, space/transportation is used as a weapon throughout the book. I’d even say much of the conflict in the story derives from the destruction or relocation of place (Keri’s house burning down, Chase and Leah worrying about eviction, peepholes in the wall of the hotel room tipping the domino of destruction that follows in the story, Keri’s banishment from her home-world, Chase worrying about needles and diseases in the dump). Does this notion of untrustworthy surroundings represent the world crumbling beneath each of the main characters? How much of this conflict is shaped by the characters themselves and to what degree are they simply victims of circumstance?

RE: This is a fantastic question. I am constantly inspired by what I see in my walks of life. Some days I work in mansions overlooking the ocean, and other days I work in run down apartments in the ghetto. Most of the settings in my stories are real places (like Needles, California—they’re trying to fix that place up, but it’s still pretty run down). That being said, the idea that the world is crumbling around both my protagonists and antagonists was spun on a purely subconscious level. I suppose it only makes sense that the final act takes place in a dump. I love gritty settings in my fiction, though I can’t say the same for some of the hovels I’ve had to work in. I find those types of settings more interesting.

JW: To follow up on the previous question, In Black features several characters who have hit rock-bottom in one way or another, and they all find themselves in deeper trouble after they try to dig out of the holes they’ve created. Rather than using the magic behind the paint for good (for instance, stowing a dying loved one in a chamber so they will survive), each character uses the magic for a sinister purpose. Do you think most people who stumbled upon the paint would inevitably wind up using it to play out their most twisted desires?

RE: I would certainly hope not, but then again I’m a cynic, as is exemplified by my natural tendency to put the paint into the hands of some twisted individuals. What would Chase have done with the paint? That’s a good question. The only solution I can think of is destroying it. It is a weapon, after all, and I can certainly imagine the atrocity were such a weapon to get into the hands of an unhinged government as opposed to the small time crooks and sickos who exploit it in the story. Evil people have such a strong desire for power that I think something as powerful as the magic paint would inevitable end up in the wrong hands.

JW: Part of what makes Chase so relatable is the realistic way in which he confronts fantastic, often horrifying situations. Unlike other characters in the story, his motives are sane and selfless on a surface level, and though his reactions aren’t always the best, they are consistent with the panic most people would feel in his shoes. In your mind, what separates Chase from the other characters in the story that makes him fundamentally good? Is he fundamentally good, or do you think he would have wound up using the paint for evil if he’d kept it long enough?

RE: I think Chase is a good man, but even the best of us would make mistakes in the face of what he has to deal with at the outset of the story. I thought a lot about his reactions and tried to place myself in his situation. No one really knows how they would react in the face of the supernatural, so it was interesting to guide him on what turned out to be quite a wild ride. I can’t really say what Chase would have done with the paint. I don’t even know what I would do with it.

JW: Do you see yourself ever writing a sequel involving the paint and its origins?

RE: I’m not a big sequel guy. I rarely read sequels and I’m kind of frustrated that sequels are so popular these days. I get it, but it’s not my thing. I find a good standalone story to be more fulfilling. That being said, if there was enough interest and my muse struck me, I wouldn’t second guess a sequel or prequel. It certainly isn’t out of the question, just unlikely.

JW: What was your process for writing the book? For instance, did you outline heavily? Did it take you fifteen years to complete or fifteen days? Do you have any rituals when you sit down and write?

RE: I primarily write by the seat of my pants, only outlining when I get stuck or the plot is too thick to get through without some direction. I work all over San Diego county, so I’m stuck in traffic a lot, which gives me plenty of time to work through plot issues between cursing out fellow commuters. I don’t have any rituals. I sit at the coffee table in the living room amongst the madness of my household. I almost always write sober (I don’t buy into that whole write drunk edit sober stuff). When I finish a book I immediately dig into the next one. I have far too many stories to take too much time off, even if they don’t all end up published.

JW: What project are you working on right now? Do you have anything in the pipeline for release?

RE: I’m going through the final pass on a novel called Death Obsessed and then I hope to get some beta readers on it. I’ve written another novel called Rattlesnake Mountain that I want to give a final read for typos before submitting. I’m currently writing a crime/noir novella with Jack Bantry. We’re in the final stages of the first draft. He’s a great collaborator and we work well together, so I’m having a lot of fun with that. My short story “Inflatable War” will be included in the hardcover anthology DarkFuse 4 (it’s available to read on their website right now).

JW: Where can people find more information on your books?

RE: My blog is robertessig.blogspot.com, I’m on Facebook and Twitter @Robert_Essig. My books are available on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and Smashwords.

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