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Catching Hell / Greg F. Gifune

Cemetery Dance / May 2010
Reviewed by: Blu Gilliand

Catching Hell is a difficult book to pin down. It starts out feeling like a coming-of-age/road trip story as we join three good friends (plus one hanger-on) getting ready to spend one last summer weekend together before going their separate ways. It veers quickly from there into a classic horror scenario: that of the strange town in the middle of nowhere, the one that seems stuck in the past and is filled with mysterious-to-the-point-of-creepy residents. From there, it detours into yet another story type familiar to horror fans, one that I’m reluctant to spoil here. Suffice to say it leads into the story’s final transformation into a survival tale, albeit one with a Twilight Zone-type twist at the end.

Pulling off such schizophrenic storytelling is no easy task, but for the most part author Greg Gifune is up to the challenge. He takes the time in this compact tale (number 20 in the Cemetery Dance novella series) to build solid, likeable characters in Billy, Stefan, Alex and Tory before throwing them into chaos, which is important in a story like this — if you don’t care what happens to the group, you really don’t care what happens in the story. That’s not to say they couldn’t have used a little more fleshing out — Tory, in particular, is more stereotype than true character, saddled with the mellow mindset and laid-back surfer-speak straight out of Fast Times at Ridgemont High. Still, the fast pace of the story helps gloss over some of these deficits in character development.

The one true qualm I have with Catching Hell comes with the revelation of what is really going on in this strange little town of Boxer Hills, that third story shift that I don’t want to give away. It’s not what is happening, necessarily – although it’s not exactly original, it’s certainly a rich enough situation that familiarity isn’t a bad thing – it’s how the characters discover the truth of what’s happening to them. It’s just a little too convenient having your characters literally go into a library and immediately pull down the exact books that explain most of what is happening to them. This occurs in a single chapter about midway through the book, and it really brought the story to a halt for me. Instead of the mystery that drove the first half of the book, we suddenly know almost everything there is to know, and the book goes from discovery and survival to a simple race against the clock. Don’t misunderstand — it’s a taut, well-written race against the clock, but the heavy exposition that gets us there just takes away from the whole experience.

Catching Hell is not without its problems, but it does have quite a bit working in its favor. Gifune keeps the story running at a quick pace, and the tension of the slowly unfolding situation is palpable throughout the first half of the book. From the moment the group leaves the library the tension is still there, but it’s changed; that amazing sense of unreality that keeps the characters off-kilter is gone. It’s a shame, because up until that point the book was a can’t-put-it-down thriller. From then on, it’s merely good — not a bad thing, of course, but still so far from what it could have been.

Purchase Catching Hell by Greg F. Gifune.

Posted on Wednesday, March 30, 2011 at 03:20PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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