Grey Matter Press, $18.95, ISBN 978-1-940658-78-0
Before is a very big book – the trade paperback clocks in at over 500 pages – and, therefore, one of its biggest challenge is to hold my attention over so many pages. Well, it succeeds for about 200 pages before I start to wonder whether we are getting anywhere soon, so I suppose that’s … half of a success?
Paul Kane’s big story has been compared to Clive Barker’s works, and I can see why. Many of Clive Barker’s full-length stories are often more about scenes at first, and eventually, these scenes coalesce into a story arc that becomes obvious only much later in the book, and Before is structured similarly.
Among the various scenarios running through the bulk of the early parts of the story, we have a US platoon during the Vietnam War days getting wiped out thanks to a malevolent force. This force turns out to be Infinity, a being that can sow malice by influencing people’s thoughts and actions. And then we have Alex Webber, a British college tutor in present day who spends a lot of time getting all sullen over his failing marriage and family issues when he’s not hallucinating disturbing things that will eventually see him ending up in a nuthouse. A prostitute meets a sad end thanks to the Infinity. A psychiatrist in the 1970s loses a patient to heart failure, but not before the patient says some kind of vague, apocalyptic stuff that no one fully understands at that point. And so forth.
This kind of story can be challenging, especially if it is something as big as this one. To bring up Mr Barker – since the publicity materials for this book keep doing so – he keeps the reader’s attention through fascinating world building or, sometimes, just throwing in all kinds of macabre stuff that one can’t just look away from.
Here, however, everything feels mundane for the most part, except when the antagonist Infinity and his sidekick-cum-punching bag show up, and as a result, even studying the cracks on the wall start to seem more appealing as a result. Things pick up considerably late in the story, when things finally come together, but even then, we have a villain who feels like a carbon copy of Stephen King’s Randall Flagg and the payoff feels like a letdown. I mean, I waded through over 500 pages… I’d have loved to see something more memorable and explosive than what I ended up getting.
At the end of the day, Before does demonstrate here and there that Paul Kane has what it takes to come up with a horror-fantasy romp if he puts his heart to it, but there is also far too much of it that could have been tightened up or even excised with some judicious self-editing. I will remember some well-done scenes here and there, such as the one involving the poor US soldiers in Vietnam, but on the whole, this one is as much a hit as it is a miss. I love a good horror story, but at the same time, like Alex, I sometimes see disturbing things while turning yet another page and trying not to yawn, such as this vision in which I’m slowly sinking into the purulent depths of the author’s navel as his giant eye gazes intensely at my predicament.