Michael Marshall has been one of the most respected authors of fantastical fiction and thrillers to emerge over the last ten years. Writing as Michael Marshall Smith, his first three novels became instant sci-fi/fantasy cult classics - Only Forward, One of Us, and Spares (the latter two titles being optioned for film versions). After this, he shortened his moniker to the currently used Michael Marshall and proceeded to write an enthralling and unnerving trilogy about a secret and all-powerful group that has been responsible for every tragic event in human history - The Straw Men trilogy - consisting of The Straw Men, The Lonely Dead, Blood of Angels. Last year, he wrote a terrific thriller titled The Intruders, which was a top-10 bestseller in the U.K.
Having read all of these classic and near-classic novels, I approached his latest novel, Bad Things, with extremely high expectations. Alas, all literary greats have their clinkers and works they are less proud of; I can only hope that Bad Things is Marshall’s one bump in the road, because this effort lacks in everything that made his previous work so memorable.
The novel starts off with a bang. John and Carol Henderson’s young son, Scott, takes a walk out onto the jetty behind their house overlooking a dark lake in Black Ridge, Washington. Scott disappears from sight and is never seen or heard from again - he has simply vanished without a trace. The horrifying start is the high point of the novel; the succeeding story does not come near it. The story jumps ahead in time three years, where we find that John and Carol Henderson, like many couples dealing with the traumatic loss of a young child, have split up. John now lives in Oregon and works a mindless job as a waiter for a friend’s restaurant. One night, he comes home to a mysterious email that reads ‘I know what happened’. Startled, John tracks down the sender of the email, a frightened woman named Ellen who tells him abruptly by phone that she knows what happened to his son but cannot speak any further as she fears she’s being watched.
This propels John to return to Black Ridge, check into a local hotel, and meet with this woman Ellen to figure out the puzzle she has presented with her cryptic messages. It as at this point where the novel quickly runs out of steam as myriad characters and strange situations are presented with little or no explanation as to their place in the plot.
What could have been a superior eerie tale about a town in the grips of a supernatural power that makes them all behave oddly, reminiscent of Thomas Tryon’s Harvest Home, merely becomes a jumbled mess that you will just keep reading in hope that the payoff is worth your valuable time.
Unfortunately, the payoff is a thinly constructed backstory of Black Ridge’s Robertson family, who seem to be either witches themselves or in league with the bewitching entity that is responsible for all the ‘bad things’ that have happened in the town’s history. I truly wish that Marshall had spent more time developing the central characters and structuring a stronger backstory for the Robertson’s and Black Ridge’s morbid history, but it never comes. Bad Things is a quick read and clearly is written by a fine writer. Here’s hoping for Better Things with his next effort.