Clowns, children, dolls. For many, these are actual phobias; they incite terror within the average human being. Maybe its the make-up and the mystery underneath, the false innocence, or the beady, lifeless eyes. Regardless, most people I know will avoid any media relating to them. Now, as a horror author, I can never resist the urge to use these in a horror story. As a reader though, this always draws me to a tale; I fear none of the above and they always make for terrifying, and often controversial, horror. In short, you know you’re in for a good time.
The Harbinger is no different. In fact, it manages to combine two of those fears (no clowns, sorry) with effortless guile, creating a short, horrific tale of isolation and mind-bending insanity. The plot is simple. Felix is a journalist, visiting the town of Dalton for his latest story. He is to interview Maggie Eloquence, the proprietor of a doll making factory, Dalton Dollworks. When he arrives, he realises things are a little peculiar in Dalton…the residents all seem to be adults, dolls decorate all of the establishments in the town, and why is the smell of pig shit so invasive? As Felix roams the town for a scoop, things start to take a turn into the macabre…and by then, it’s too late.
First of all, this story is phenomenal. It instantly drags you into the soul crushing isolation of the town. We arrive when Felix does and we see everything through his eyes. Jet lagged and tired, irritable and frustrated, he just wants the trip over with. Regardless, he owes a favour to his editor, who managed to see Felix through a tough divorce. Bound by a promise, he goes about his business in the least enthusiastic way possible. It’s a clever touch by the author, instilling a sense of dread and detachment from the get go. Felix doesn’t want to be there, so every little detail is enhanced. When he checks into his hotel, a normal process for most, there’s an underlying sense of menace, one that rumbles beneath the surface of the book until the taut finale. This menace develops as Felix navigates Dalton and it’s weird, spooky residents. It makes for thrilling suspense.
Now, onto Dalton itself. A dark, brooding, creepy town. Right up there with Desperation and Silent Hill for the maximum creep factor. We’re constantly reminded of the pig shit smell that follows Felix everywhere. It’s a decent plot device, and one with massive relevance, but it doesn’t seem to affect any of the inhabitants. You’ll never forget this simple detail, but it pays off. As Felix investigates his story via a Dalton Dollworks tour (watch out for the gift shop scene, it’s a sublime piece of terror), a trip to the local diner and a mysterious, abandoned church, he starts to realise there’s more to Dalton then meets the eye. As the story rumbles to it’s horrific conclusion, you’ll be hooked until the final word. Some wonderful creativity – when Felix tries to check out, for example – stops this story from being just another ‘town gone crazy’ story, which sometimes ruins a decent build up. This is original stuff, a story that will scare even the most stubborn minded horror fan, like me; it gave me goosebumps. I can’t remember the last story that did that to me in such a short word span.
VERDICT: The Harbinger is an excellent horror story, one that needs to be read by any true horror fan. Doing for dolls and children what Christine did for Plymouth Fury’s, you’ll never look at either in the same way again. Tense, thrilling and terrifying, Todd Keisling has produced a piece of work that will stick in the memory for some time. I’ve heard this is a part of his Ugly Little Things series. After this, I will be checking out the other stories. Recommended reading. A piece of advice though? If you have any dolls in your house, you might want to move them outside before reading. Trust me…