Most helpful critical review
Subpar Horror Story
on September 20, 2003
Tom Piccirilli is one horror author that makes me scratch my head in confusion. This author has won at least one Bram Stoker Award, the plum prize of those authors who write horror, for one of his novels. "The Deceased" is the third Piccirilli novel I have read, with the other two being "The Night Class" and the entertaining western "Grave Men." Of these three books, "The Deceased" ranks as the worst. Come to think of it, I wasn't that impressed by "The Night Class," either. The western novel was quite amusing, but if this author's other horror novels resemble "The Deceased" in any way, shape, or form, we are all in a lot of trouble. "The Deceased" is an unmitigated mess of a story, with a murky plot that becomes nearly impenetrable by the time the reader reaches the conclusion.
"The Deceased" is a tale about a horror writer named Jacob Maelstrom. Jacob's father Isaac was an enormously influential and famous horror author, well remembered and still beloved by legions of fans despite the fact that he died horribly some years ago. Several people wrote books about the strange incident that claimed the lives of not only Jacob's father but the rest of his family as well. Jacob survived, somehow, and still carries the memories of the day his sister took an axe and killed the family. Now, Jacob feels a call to return to the scene of the crime, to the Maelstrom mansion where it all began. In the course of Jacob's immersion into the memories of the house, he encounters the ghosts of his insane sister Rachel and his sadistic, wheelchair bound brother Joseph, along with images of his mother and father. Out in the forests and ponds surrounding the property, Jacob recalls the "muses," some type of supernatural creatures roaming around the grounds. If the dangers of the Maelstrom house threatened only Jacob, perhaps everything would turn out for the best, but two unexpected visitors in the form of a depressed graduate student and the girlfriend of Isaac Maelstrom's agent turn up at the house. This appearance by two outsiders means that other people will face the terror of Jacob's trip down memory lane.
I simply do not understand the appeal Piccirilli's books have for many horror fans. That's not to say that I think every aspect of this book fails: once again, Piccirilli does create several engrossing scenes, especially the opening experience with the fan and the flashback to a day Jacob, Rachel, and Joseph spent at a pond on the mansion's grounds. These scenes work, and work well, because Piccirilli definitely possesses a gift for the English language. Yes, this guy can write better than most authors you will come across in this genre. Regrettably, the stylistic acumen of the author fails to make up for the poorly constructed organizational structure and uninspiring characters found throughout "The Deceased." This story simply fails to satisfy on nearly every level, and its hallucinatory sequences, piled one on top of another, bored me. I don't mind reading books or watching films that like to mess with the readers head a bit, but anything that attempts to do so needs to contain something concrete for the reader to use as a touchstone. I don't think this story provides such a touchstone. Instead, the story zooms off the tracks every few pages.
I am not ready to give up on Piccirilli just yet. I know he can write stories with coherent structures (like "Grave Men"), and I am hoping some of his other horror novels contain just such an organized plot. I am beginning to think they don't, though, if many of the reviews I have recently read are true. In a way, Tom Piccirilli's horror novels remind me of Douglas Clegg, another writer who uses surrealism in his books. The only difference between the two is that Clegg makes the hallucinatory scenes secondary to his plot. With Clegg, you might scratch your head a few times, but at least you know where you are going. Piccirilli, as far as I can see, throws out everything EXCEPT confusing weirdness. "Hexes" or "A Lower Deep" will be up next for me, but not anytime soon. I need to take a break from this author's horror novels for a spell.