Like many popular works of fiction by authors like Stephen King, Clive Barker and Dean Koontz, Midnight is a hybrid of fantasy and horror. As with some of the better of these works, this novel contains an underlying theme that goes deeper than simply the crunching of alien creatures' bodies or frightened children puking. Midnight is also a morality tale, the theme of which might best be summed up with the biblical warning "What good does it do a man if he gains the world but in the process loses his soul?"
It is, in fact, the very soul of protagonist Thomas Bishop that is at stake, although he doesn't realize it. Bishop is a writer dreaming of great success, of writing the book that will grant him fame and fortune. With his wife Liz and his young daughter, KerryAnn, he has moved to rural Vermont from New York City to escape the ills of city life. Liz teaches at a local school and Thomas writes in his office in the house.
Evil enters Bishop's life in two separate forms. First is a large black brute of a dog that has apparently been lost by its owner and wanders onto Bishop's property. Bishop initially wants to shoo the large dog away but then, out of kindness (or possibly an inner attraction to evil?) decides to take the dog in, at least until the owner can be found. KerryAnn names the dog "Midnight".
The second odd appearance on Bishop's property is that of a traveling salesman:
"Upon Bishop's walking onto the porch, a smile appeared on the man's angular face and he immediately stepped forward to introduce himself...His face, topped by a head of greased-back, raven-black hair was wide-cheeked and angular. Above the cheeks were youthful, glistening green eyes. The nose was long and sharp and the brow high, giving the man the air of an intellectual. The skin was tanned, which lent him an exotic appearance as well. He was clad in black pants and a white shirt, open at the collar...Bishop wondered if he was looking at a wandering gypsy...There was something, vague and indistinct, about the man that made Bishop think he'd just stepped out of another age, through a time warp of sorts, to appear in front of his home."
As with many a cautionary story in Grimm's Tales, this is the evil stranger of whom one should beware. Unknown to Bishop, Kroonquist is also the true owner of the large hulk of a dog now sitting on the porch a short distance away.Kroonquist asks for water, not for himself but for his overheated 1930s-appearing sedan and Bishop gives it to him. In return for his act of kindness, Kroonquist, a salesman of computer software including games, gives Bishop a computer chess game of sorts, but adds, "It is more than a simple game...It is a means to enable your reality to eclipse your very dreams."
Bishop thinks the guy is crazy even as he accepts the game. One more thing, adds the strange Kroonquist as he leaves, "Try very hard not to lose". It is a true warning, for although he doesn't yet know it, Bishop is playing for high stakes: the lives of his family, the destruction of his soul. Bishop doesn't play the game immediately but when he opens the package at last he is impressed by what he sees:
"...a CD that contained the program software; an odd sort of helmet and face mask of the lightest cloth; earphones and a pair of electronic gloves..."
All to create a realistic virtual world. Bishop sees the game now as an expensive gift, and it soon becomes his second reality. The first time he plays he's impressed by how real everything inside the game seems:
"Bishop was flying, or rather his mentality was. He'd entered the cyberspace with a burst of energy that literally snatched his breath away, and found himself soaring high in a blazing lemon sky, a bird of thought sailing far above the earth, above clouds of red and purple mist..."
He flies to a field of battle, a living battlefield in the form of a great chessboard. There he quickly learns the basic rule of the game. For each piece won or lost: "Tribute will be given, tribute will be taken." At first he plays well enough to win win a fantastic prize that blows his mind. He is, after winning a piece, taken out of the game and out of himself and allowed to "hitchhike" on the lovemaking of two teenagers:
"...Bishop felt the heat of the raw exchange, felt the desire of the girl grasping for every bit of pleasure she could grab from him. They kept at it for minutes, each in their own separate ecstasy, the boy, the girl and the unseen hitchhiker along for the ride..."
When Bishop is yanked away at last from the youthful lovemaking and returns to his office, he is filled with the overriding desire for more. And "more" is precisely what he is tempted with when again he sees the "drummer". Kroonquist produces a small carving that he holds in the palm of his hand:
"...a representation that was half-man and half-bull, the figure an inversion of the standard image of the Minotaur of ancient mythology...lt's expression evidenced anger as though it was the true Minotaur impatient for another virgin tribute from Theseus."
It is an oracle of sorts, its eyes (there are more than two) capable of viewing the future. Bishop, looking at the carving, sees in his own mind's eye
"...the prizes the years to come held for him: success as an acclaimed author, a winner of the Pulitzer Prize for literature...He saw the wealth, the massive wealth the future would grant him...Life in a great mansion, servants, expensive cars, jewelry and fine clothes, and the world's most beautiful women...a man idolized and respected...a man feted and honored by the lowest and highest of humankind...Dogs and babies loved him as did presidents and kings. He was a man as close to a living god as it was possible to be."
Bishop knows immediately he must have that future. He knows he DESERVES that future.
As with many such fantasy/horror novels, there is a lot of gore, especially in the playing of the "game", when one soldier is felled by another:
"...The knight, with his baleful eyes gleaming nothing less than bliss, then tugged the blade swiftly upward, opening the bishop up from pelvis to sternum and spilling the bloodied entrails onto the grass..."
The knight takes care not to deliver wounds that would immediately kill the bishop; he wants more pleasure from the slaughter:
"...The killing knight bent over the piece and, with the blade of his dagger, ran a skilled slicing of the stone skin around the boundaries of the dying bishop's face. Then with his gauntlet covered hand, the knight spread his fingers and thumb over the groaning face, pressed down with as much force as he could produce and literally pulled the skin...away from the bone of the head, leaving behind the horror of a still living, bloodied shrieking skull."
Bishop's reaction to the slaughter (that is so real) is that the game is "really cool", and he hasn't even raised the game's level of play yet. When he does, the chessboard transforms into a small city in which each board square becomes a city block. Real urban warfare is about to be played with the playing of this "game".
Like the game Biship plays, this novel is "cool", too. Packed full in its slightly fewer than 200 pages is more horror and fantasy than many other books with more paper and more paragraphs but less imagination. Midnight is an inventive, intelligent fantasy/horror tale that is certain to please both genre fans and those readers who aren't fantasy/horror readers in general but who simply like good well-written, highly entertaining books.
© 2003 by
Mary B. Stuart for Curled Up With a Good Book