If you're at all familiar with David Robbins, it's likely because you enjoy survival stories or westerns. He's the author of the long-running Endworld series of post-apocalyptic novels set in an after-the-bombs-fell alternate future, but he's also lent his talents to several entries in the popular Mack Bolan and Executioner series of one-man-army Men's Adventure series, and borrowed Ralph Compton's brand to pen a number of cowboy prairie stories. The guy even penned a Hardy Boys adventure under the "Franklin W. Dixon" pseudonym early in his career, so he kind of spans the genres. But before churning out professional Mad Max fanfic and gunslinging Westerns, David Robbins got his break when he wrote Blood Cult for Leisure's horror line in 1982. But that book's ridiculously expensive on the secondary market (I've seen copies go for upwards of $70 on eBay), and I've never managed to lay hands on it. Nor have I yet found a copy of Hell-O-Ween, which was his 'breakout' horror story from 1992 and typically crosses the $40+ mark. I was delighted, however, to run across the beat-to-hell-and-back copy of Prank Night you see in the cover scan for under five dollars, and decided to make it my first Robbins read. I was suitably impressed and will be keeping my eye out for more of his stuff in the future, but it wasn't all fun and games. So let's go take a walk down by the cemetery and see what's stirring.
You're not scared, are you...?
Ben Shields is heading back home to the sleepy little Oregon town of Cemetery Ridge. In the nine years since he left for the big city, he's turned into a minor celebrity, with two horror novels under his belt and a reasonably successful career in journalism which keeps the lights on and the gas tank filled. But if Ben's changed for the better in that near-decade, Cemetery Ridge has taken a turn for the worse. Traffic's even more sparse on main street, the local bank's gone out of business, and something nasty came out of the woods the other night and slaughtered his old friend Horace Walker. Folks are whispering about a bear attack, but sheriff Travis Sinclair saw the body and he's never seen any bear do that to a person before.
Then again, maybe it's not all bad. Ben's old sweetheart Nadine Somersby is newly-divorced from town scion Victor Richards, and it's clear she realized she made a mistake by choosing Victor's money over Ben's love all those years ago.
Of course, Ben remembers Victor as being one who could never let anything go--not in athletics, not in relationships. As if that's not enough, Victor's thuggish nephew Paxton is in town, shipped off from his mom's home in Colorado to hopefully straighten himself out before he ruins his life. Paxton's hardly one to listen to rules, and in fact, has already put together his own little gang of trouble-makers. It's late October, Halloween's on the way, and Paxton's got some ideas for throwing a prank night the likes of which Cemetery Ridge has never seen before. And all the while, the body count continues to rise. By the time Halloween arrives in Cemetery Ridge, it will be a night no one can forget...assuming they survive to see daylight.
I thoroughly enjoyed Prank Night right up until the last few pages when I realized Robbins was falling victim to his own page count and didn't leave himself enough room to do more than give the story a quick-and-dirty ending which it did not deserve. At 365 pages, Prank Night falls quite easily into standard novel-length territory, but the story Robbins weaves is compelling enough that I found myself wanting more as I approached the final chapter. Sure enough, my fears were confirmed as Robbins hits page 362 and is forced to wrap everything up in another 2 and 1/3rd pages. The characters in this book are worth far better than that, and I don't think anyone would have suffered if he had another twenty or so pages with which to wrap things up a little neater. Maybe Leisure had him on a really tight deadline, or the editor at the time (this was 1994, so Don D'Auria hadn't come on board yet) was a real stickler for page count, or maybe Robbins just didn't know the best way to end the story. Whatever the case, Robbins is hardly the first horror writer I've encountered who bangs out a killer novel then fails to stick the landing in the last few pages.
The survivors behave like not telling the truth is the best thing they could possibly do, and in fact some of them plan to leave town before the police can start asking questions. Um...maybe you jerks don't realize it, but several prominent and well-known members of the town were killed by this thing, not to mention at least one law enforcement officer. There are going to be questions, and heading out before the county sheriff can haul you in for questioning isn't going to look good. Murders are murders, after all, and the cops don't stop investigating just because key witnesses skipped town. Plus, given the nature of Paxton's ultimate prank, Cemetery Ridge is going to require dozens if not hundreds of hours spent cleaning things up. Dashing off before being asked to help is kind of a dick move by all involved. I'll chalk it up to Robbins running up against his own page count this time, but we'll see if further reading reveals a writer who's great at coming up with new stories, but not so hot at concluding them in a satisfactory manner.
Pseudo-spoiler alert, it's no bear stalking the residents of Cemetery Ridge. I'm honestly not sure exactly what it is, since Robbins never comes out and gives us a name or even an explanation for what the monster is or where it came from. There are hints dropped, sure, but nothing concrete. We do spend some time in the creature's head, so we get an idea of what it's all about, and between that and the descriptions of what it does to its victims, we can conclude it's really not a nice thing at all. Still, while not knowing exactly what this thing is, and why one particular substance can harm it when bullets shotgun slugs don't even faze it, isn't a deal-breaker for a horror story, it's kind of disappointing. One thing I can say is that it's certainly unique in my experience--you aren't likely to have encountered another one of these creatures in any other horror novel, that's for sure.
So, between the covers, what we have here is a solid effort by Robbins with a great setting in the small-town Pacific northwestern region of the United States, a cast of mostly-solid characters, even if some of them (mainly the teenagers involved in the book's B-plot) could fill in for poster-board at a moment's notice, and a well-maintained pace up until the last few pages where it all goes south. This one reads like a cross between Jaws and a creature-of-the-week episode of The X-Files, and has me excited to track down some more of Robbins' horror novels and see if he maintained his skill. It appears that after 1995's Spook Night he left the horror scene all together, but that still leaves six other books in that genre to track down and hopefully enjoy. Despite my criticism of the ending and the fact we never learn what exactly was carving up the residents of Cemetery Ridge in search of 'sweet nectar', I still enjoyed Prank Night and would recommend it to anyone who is fine with not getting all the details surrounding a book's creature feature.
Three drained brains out of five.
Paxton might be a completely unsympathetic little shit, but at least its a badge he wears proudly. His ultimate prank is both awful and hilarious at the same time (presuming you possess a morbid sense of humor), and there's a part of me that really wanted to see the town's reaction to it, despite his inability to finish it thanks to interference from the monster. This is exactly the sort of large-scale prank every teenager dreams of pulling off at one time or another, but fortunately for everyone else, it's also the kind that is virtually impossible barring a certain specific set of circumstances and skill sets.