The darkness and the light are both alike to thee. (Psalm 139:12)
What’s the difference between dark fantasy and horror as genres? As far as I can tell, it all comes down to the author’s intent. Does he want us to share in the trauma that makes the ultimate victory over darkness that much more precious? Or does he just want to scare the bejeezus out of us?
Or, to turn it around, what is the scariest, most horrific thing you can imagine? For me, as a parent, it would be evil stalking a child. And if that evil was her own parent?
Line of Descent by James DerryThe Gardeners are incredibly wealthy, with a dark secret to their success. One evening on their private island estate, their matriarch strolls into the ocean and doesn’t return. Her suicide sparks a chain of events that will rock the lives of two young women—and unleash a new incarnation of an ancient evil upon the world.
Elise Gardener is an empath. She can see, smell, and feel emotional auras. Elise’s intense sensitivities make her naturally reserved and socially awkward. After her mother’s mysterious death, Elise invites her tenuous best friend—Mallory, a girl she’s only known for two months—to the memorial at the Gardeners’ island. Together, they discover that Elise’s family are not what they seem to be. They are in the thrall of a dark spirit—a powerful, primordial ancestor who lives eternally by possessing the bodies of its descendants. Elise’s own mother was its last host…and the Gardeners’ inner circle have been raising Elise to be next.
As the entity invades her mind, Elise is haunted by the memories of its past victims (including a Khmer princess and a mesmerist in pre-Revolution Paris). Through these visions she may find salvation, but her chances are slim. In 8,000 years no heir has ever broken free of the Gardener’s Line of Descent.
- Title: Line of Descent
- Author: James Derry
- Genre: Dark Fantasy/ Horror
- Publisher: Amazon
- Date of Publication: February 13, 2015
- Number of pages: appr. 248
James Derry’s debut novel puts the dark back in fantasy. While they might live on a beautiful Georgia coastal island, the force that leads the Gardener family is ancient, alien, and above all dark. Like most good—and evil—fairy tales, this one focuses on the number three. Three women are locked in a struggle that only two can survive. First is Regina Gardener, whose suicide as the novel opens doesn’t keep her massive will from reaching out to control future events. Second is her daughter, Elise, whose ability to sense emotions and auras of those around her has led her to withdraw into a semi-autistic existence. Finally there is Mallory, nominally Elise’s boss at the camp where they work, but somehow elevated to the status of best friend to the woman she’s only known for two months, and—she soon realizes—actually doesn’t know at all.
As Mallory arrives for Regina’s funeral, she marvels at a world of luxury undreamed of in her working class existence. At first she lets herself be seduced—both by the indulgence of the surroundings and literally by the shallow, handsome young man who carelessly pursues her. But Mallory can’t ignore that something seems wrong with the Island and with her friend Elise in particular. Eventually Elise and Mallory face the reality that they are surrounded by monsters. Elise’s palatial home is their prison, and those who should be her protectors are actually committed and eager for her destruction.
For the most part, Derry’s tale is well-paced, its slow build exploding into a desperate chase that’s nicely timed and developed. In a few places, the pace was slightly uneven, probably not so much because of the writing but because the plot jumped around in time, and also failed to connect some things in the present day. For example, Mallory has a sexual encounter, but there never seems to be an actual plot point that develops from that, and it’s simply dropped when it reaches its (mutually unsatisfactory) conclusion.
I’ve always put a lot of weight on the characters in a book. Are they three-dimensional, fully-fleshed out people with both strengths and flaws? Do they grow, develop, weaken, or become changed by the events of the story? In this case, Regina’s character as the evil entity is of course incapable of change, but we do get a fairly complete picture of her overwhelming self-absorbed assurance. Even as she’s about to commit suicide—knowing that it will actually lead to her daughter’s death instead—she demands that her husband repeat, “If you were gone, we would be nothing.”
But I never got the same sense of Elise, and there certainly was no feeling that the horrific betrayal by parents and caregivers created any fundamental change. Nor do we really understand what it is that draws her to Mallory. There’s no sign that it’s a sexual attraction, but there is very little else that might constitute common ground. (Of course, when you compare “Mallory didn’t actually hurt me” to the way almost everyone else in her life treats Elise, maybe that’s enough reason right there.)
Mallory, too, was something of a closed book. We see that she fails utterly at the sexual encounter, but we never really find out why. We don’t know about her life, what her hopes are, or even what fears are holding her back. And despite her imprisonment and injuries, we don’t really get a sense that events or her own character will grow or change. I even would have liked to find out about the old Regina, the woman whose body the millenia-old entity took over before she married Elise’s father. All we have is his casual remark that he never had much interest in Regina before her transformation, so clearly it’s the monster he loves. And that, right there, was what moved this book from fantasy to horror. The fact that Elise was created and raised to provide a shell for the next incarnation—and that her death would be planned and actively accomplished by her own parents—was just about the scariest thing I can imagine.
There are many things about Line of Descent that I admired, but most of all it was the style. Author James Derry builds a world and an atmosphere that combines beauty with a horrifying sense of alien evil, and he maintains that through flashbacks to its prior hosts, from ancient princess to pre-revolutionary French aristocrat to Regina Gardener.
I’m not a huge fan of horror or dark fantasy, and this one had a few things that will probably be showing up in nightmares to come. However in future books, if James Derry could show readers not just the events, but the ways those events affect and change the characters (and, no—dying doesn’t count!), then his approach to horror could reach sleep-with-the-lights-on levels.
When I’m rating a book, I always start by giving it five stars and taking away for various issues. At one point, I was down to three stars for character development and a few plot-related issues. But the combination of pace and especially of style added to the total, and I’d give Line of Descent three and a half stars. Certainly, I’d look forward to more stories from James Derry. I’ll just make sure to read them in the middle of the day. Maybe leave the lights on just to be on the safe side.
**I received this book for free from the publisher or author in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.**
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INTERVIEW WITH JAMES DERRYWhat was your first car? A 1986 Mazda 626. While driving it home from school, something in it popped, and it started spewing steam and blood-colored water through the seams in the hood. I think we drove it for another year or so after that.
Star Wars, Star Trek, or Firefly? Even though I’m writing a Space-Western, I have to pick Star Wars over Firefly. Han and Chewbacca were my first space cowboys.
As a child (or now!), what did you want to be when you grew up? A penciller for comic-books. Eventually that evolved to ‘book illustrator.’ Then ‘graphic designer.’ Now I really enjoy being a ‘moonlighting writer.’
Best guilty pleasure ever? I like to watch horror movies on fast-forward while eating cold Reese’s cups! It’s amazing (or perhaps not) how much plot you can glean from a horror movie, even if you’re fast-forwarding 85% of the time.
What is the one thing you can’t live without? Consistent exposure to sunshine and fresh air. The outdoors is my favorite (if not my most productive) place to write.
What is the single biggest challenge of creating the settings in your novels? Line of Descent is set among the old-money estates of the Georgia coast. The Carnegies, the Vanderbilts, and the Rockefellers all spent summers there. I knew from the start that I wanted to create a completely imaginary private island for the Gardeners, but it was still painful to reconcile my vision of Shade Island with the reality of the nearby coastline. I struggled with the geography of the estate, its forests, its proximity to sounds and rivers—even the type of waves on the beach. Eventually I decided to stop stressing so much. I even added some wild horses to the estate. Herds do exist on Georgia’s Cumberland Island.
What are you working on now/What is your latest book? A Space-Western that is a cross between East of Eden and The Road (at least that’s what I’m shooting for). Two bickering brothers are transporting their comatose mother across a planet that has been decimated by a epidemic of contagious sleep. They run into two sisters along the way, and that’s when the drama really begins!
BONUS! EXCERPT FROM LINE OF DESCENT
The tide swirled over her shins as she waded into deeper water. The ocean was bracingly cold, and she could feel her pulse dropping. It took her a full minute to push out beyond the point where the waves were breaking. Her body was detestably weak. She glanced in disgust at her spindly arms. The slanted sun had settled like orange dust on her sallow skin. Where her body was submerged, her skin was as pale as sour milk. The ocean sank to expose her bare chest to the misty air. It rose to smack her in the chin. She swept her arms through the water, swimming until she found a current that pulled her farther from shore.
Regina took one last look at the ghostly moon. Then she exhaled long and hard, closed her eyes, and sank. In five seconds she had reached the bottom. She visualized her blood turning blue from lack of oxygen. A cold, grayish color like the ocean. She visualized her body turning inanimate.
Thirty seconds. Above her, elephantine currents rolled over themselves, threatening to pull her upward. She clawed into the sand, scooping up handfuls and piling them onto her hollowed chest. Forty-five seconds. A surge of instinct rose in her brain, an animal panic demanding that she expel carbon dioxide. Regina fought it off. She kept her hands and feet firmly anchored in the green sand.
Long ago, she had spent forty days lying motionless on a dazzling white atoll on the outskirts of French Polynesia. In those days she had been afflicted by a severe ennui. Boredom weighed her down, a crushing burden. Nothingness had become a temptation, so she chose to embrace it. She decided that a surfeit of monotony would either cure her or truly kill her. So she simply fell down on that deserted beach—naked with arms outstretched—and stared at the merciless sky. For forty days she immersed herself in inaction, engrossed her mind in blankness, lulled with the constant, bilateral rhythm of the waves. Crash and suck. Crash and suck. The heavens and the sea continued to move around her. High and low tide. Day and night. She opened her mouth and drank rainwater as it fell. She willed crabs to crawl into her upturned hands. She crushed them and ate their insides. Drifts of sand gathered in the deepening canyons between her ribs. She was more than herself; she became more aware of her oneness with the universe. She felt her flesh melting into the earth. After forty days, when her attendants pulled her off the beach, her oozing body left a cruciform scab of sweat, pus, and filth in the sand. She saw that shape and knew she was right. She had to continue.
Ninety seconds. She pushed gas from her mouth in a busy stream of bubbles. The urge to breathe was overwhelming—a darkening terror as her brain began to die, snuffed out like an ember under a thick, black blanket. Death was always hard; she had accepted that fact eons ago. But she had to persevere. Pierce had said it himself: the world would be nothing without her. Copernicus had been rotting in his grave for 500 years. He had always been wrong. She was the axis, the center of creation. The sun and the moon could feign indifference if that’s what they chose. The stars could shiver in the sky, hoping their stations would hold. In the end they would all come crashing down if she was ever truly gone.
Regina routed her instinct and willed her larynx to spread open, to leave her airway clear. She opened her mouth and pulled liters of dark water into her lungs.
Where does your dark side fall? What crosses your line between dark fantasy and horror? What’s the scariest thing you could imagine?