I had not read the book by that point, but wanted to plug it since I knew it was for such a good cause. Well today, Friday the 13th, I am here to report on The Tormentors after having read it, and I am glad that I did.
Let’s start with the first rule of any good horror novel: you have to set up the atmosphere of unease right at the start. Jack succeeds here and then some. The opening chapter describes an older man being pursued by some evil force. He is tormented so badly that when he is forced to halt by a police officer, he would rather kill himself than wait for the shadows to catch up to him. And then in italics we get this to end the chapter after a harrowing first 3 pages:
“That was quite fun.”“Yes, but far too fleeting. This one didn’t last long.” “Nevertheless, his anguish was appetizing.” “Indeed. What shall we do now? On to the next?” “Patience, Sisters, we await our command.” “Perhaps the next will be even tastier.”We are set up for some terrifying adventure now. I was intrigued, excited, and hopeful that Jack could make this awesome set up pay off. He did.
What follows that opening chapter is a horror novel that understands the genre and uses its tropes and standards in a way that is not cliche, but rather, enhances the story and the horror fan’s enjoyment of the novel.
The plot follows the terrible marriage between Roderick and Elizabeth and in particular Rod’s descent into madness at the hands of a trio of evil demons (the ones talking in italics above). However, like all good horror novels, there is a supernatural evil equally matched by a human one engaged in an epic battle here.
Rod is an abusive husband, and an overall bad guy, but Phoenix manages to make him relatable enough, at first, so that we are compelled to keep reading and to see what will happen to him. As the story unfolds, it is Elizabeth who grows into our hero. She is forced to confront evil head on and try to save herself and her daughter in the process. She is a typical horror hero herself as she is flawed [she married Rod for all the wrong reasons] but she must grow up and figure out who she is, what she needs, and fight the evil in her life along the way.
This is a fast paced novel that has you compulsively turning the pages. Again, like the best books in the genre, Phoenix understands that after the initial anxiety inducing first scene you have to take a small step back and build up the terror, fear, and tension before allowing the last third of the book to unfold at a breakneck pace.
And, it has a traditional horror ending with the conflict resolved but the supernatural force moving on. Who will the trio stalk next?
By the way, that trio of evil monsters are vicious, and the book is bloody. But the overall message is positive because the demons will torment their victims until they confesses their sins. Normally though the guilt of their sins, which is the force driving the monsters, is what ultimately kills the victim.
The writing here is impressive for a first novel. As I have said, Phoenix is obviously a student of the genre and he used his knowledge as a starting off point. It is a novel with a nod to horror’s traditions but without being rote or derivative.
And, the book’s proceeds go to help battered women, so you really can’t loose by grabbing a copy for yourself.
Three Words That Describe This Book: monsters, terrifying, madness
Readalikes: At times, Tormentors reminded me of the ghost stalking Jude Coyne in Joe Hill’s breakout debut, Heart-Shaped Box. The whole idea of someone being tormented by a supernatural evil driven by its victim’s sins is a shared appeal here.
Phoenix’s writing style also reminded me of Bentley Little and Graham Masterton. I would suggest anything by these men if you liked Tormentors. All three write novels that move quickly, are generous with the blood and gore, juxtapose human and supernatural evil, and often deal with secrets.
If you liked the “driven into madness” angle, I also highly recommend Ghost Radio by Leopoldo Gout. However, please note, the pacing in Ghost Radio is much more methodical.