The way some male writers indulge in descriptions of their “fantasy” women sets my teeth on edge - the blinding perfection of physical beauty, the striking features, long hair, piercing eyes. The fact that Koryta offers this puerile description in the first chapter as his protagonist, Deputy Sheriff Kevin Kimble of eastern Kentucky, sits across from a female inmate in a bright orange jumpsuit only undermines Kimble’s believability later in the story. That Kimble has to camouflage his obvious arousal when rising makes the scene even more distasteful. The object of his fascination, Jacqueline Mathis, is the woman who shot the deputy sheriff and is now doing time for that crime.
But that is Koryta’s way with each of his characters, this over-embellishment: the old drunk, Wyatt French, who builds a lighthouse in Blade Ridge, Kentucky (“I’m getting scared of the dark. I’m getting scared of what I could do in the dark.”); Roy Darmers, a long-time newspaper man haunted by the loss of his parents in a tragic accident at fourteen; Audrey Clark, the newly widowed owner of a wild cat refuge bordering Wyatt’s lighthouse (her husband died on the Ridge); Wesley Harrington, an animal caretaker troubled by the big cats’ aggressive reaction to their new home. All the characters are superficial, part of a stage setting for a Stephen King-ish tale that falls short of the mark.
In establishing the conditions for the unfolding “horror,” the author glosses over the very qualities that help a reader identify with and empathize with a cast on the brink of a nightmare. Clearly, all of these folks are expendable. The result is a tale that is more bizarre than scary, the strange occurrences at Wyatt French’s lighthouse the scene of otherworldly events and barely suppressed evil. As a skeptical group gathers to investigate French’s reluctant suicide, it is clear that they are only window dressing for the author’s attempt at the horror genre.
I have read other Koryta novels (decent stories with some heft), but this one has already irritated me by the end of the first chapter, with Kimble’s monthly visits to the prison and his ludicrous obsession with his assailant. Mathis is given disproportionate power over a lawman, hardly establishing Kimble as a reliable figure in the story - not to mention his ongoing inner dialog of self-doubt: “Was she smiling as she shot me? No, I only imagined it.” Please. We expect this nonsense from frail Victorian females whose identity is systematically weakened by the society that imprisons them, not a grown man charged with protecting innocent people.
Kimball discovers French’s dead body, Darmers gathers Wyatt’s collection of photos, obits and maps documenting the strange happenings on Blade Ridge over the years, and Audrey Clark moves her big cat sanctuary adjacent to the ominous lighthouse. Agitated leopards, cougars, tigers and one black panther howl as night falls, disturbed by eerie blue lights that hover near the area. As the violence accelerates, Koryta links all and sundry to this place, failing to deliver that spine-tingling doubt Stephen King so masterfully injects into his thrillers. Given the plot, comparisons to King and Koontz are inevitable, Koryta no threat to the big boys. Unfortunately, this author never really sells his tale of man versus the unknown and the unthinkable.