Riverwatch, by Joseph Nassise

riverwatch-by-joseph-nassise coverGenre: Horror
Publisher: Simon and Schuster
Published: 2003
Reviewer Rating: three stars
Book Review by Lynn Nicole Louis

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Riverwatch, a first novel by Joe Nassise, accomplishes what it sets out to do, but does so in a familiar and mostly uninventive fashion. It falls into the category of ‘Boogieman’ books, along the lines of It, by Stephen King, or Stinger, by Robert McCammon, or a whole host of Dean Koontz novels: Boogieman threatens small town (always a small town) and a group of over-matched characters with a limited chance of success must stop him. There’s a certain comfort in familiarity. You understand the situation, circumstances, and goal – the story slips on like a comfortable, well-worn, shoe (albeit in this case one with a few pebbles in it).

It seems that thousands of years ago, three intelligent races occupied the Earth. There were the Elders, human in appearance and benevolent in intent, possessed of strange powers: The Good Guys. Opposite the Elders where the Nightshades; carnivorous flying humanoids who loved nothing better than the cause pain and death: the Bad Guys. Lastly were the Humans, the race that the Nightshades inflicted the pain and death on: the Food. Humans weren’t yet civilized and were hunted as cattle by the Nightshades while the Elders saw potential in humanity and began to teach them. Ultimately this resulted in a war between the Nightshades and the Elders that wiped both races out, leaving only one of each. With the Elders and Nightshades gone, humanity continued on the path of advancement they were shown by the Elders, multiplied, and created their own civilization culminating in where we are today.

Gabriel (obviously a deliberate choice of name) is the last remaining Angel… err, Elder. Age has finally caught up with him however, and he is dying in an assisted care facility. Some of his powers remain, enough so that he senses Moloch, the last remaining Demon… err, Nightshade, is about to bust free from his imprisonment. Gabriel drops a few hints and clues along with a weird necklace to some humans to help give them some semblance of a chance against Moloch.

An aside: in the Bible, Gabriel is an Archangel and the messenger of God who “… went to carry the Word to the heathen”, an obvious reference to the teaching role the Elders played to humans. Moloch, on the other hand, was a false deity associated with Ammon in 1 Kings 11:7, “Then Solomon built a high place for Chemosh the detestable idol of Moab, on the mountain which is east of Jerusalem, and for Molech (Moloch) the detestable idol of the sons of Ammon.” These theological references add to the story, as it was kind of interesting to see what other things Nassise was going to try to attribute to Elders and Nightshades in his version of human history.

Back to the book. There’s Sam, who works at the care facility part time and designs role playing modules. Jake is a contractor and Sam’s friend. It’s his workmen who uncover the passage to Moloch’s prison. Last is Kate, ostensibly Jake’s girlfriend (though they never really acted as such). She’s the recipient of said weird necklace, which enables her to establish a mental bond with Moloch, a bond that works both ways. After Moloch escapes, gruesome murders start taking place and the three of them must find a way to defeat the Boogeyman with no help from the authorities since their fantastic story would never be believed.

Sound familiar? To anyone who’s been reading horror longer than a week it should. I bet you can guess the ultimate ending as well, though Nassise throws in a few curves that help distinguish it from other stories cut from the same cloth. He certainly isn’t shy about hurting his main characters, which helps create tension, as the reader is left to wonder just who will be standing at the end (although we know as soon as the story starts who won’t).

The level of craft here is adequate, though unpolished when compared to more experienced authors. Nassise is fond of a particular device, a three sentence construction, with each sentence being its own paragraph, that he overuses. As an example, this is from the first chapter:

He realized what it was that had upset his foreman.

Stone stairs lay just beneath the stone.

Leading down.

He’s trying for drama, and, if used sparingly, this would work. But he uses it too much. He’s also apparently likes the words ‘crimson’ and ‘flesh’; you’ll see both words numerous times here, as well as some odd metaphors that don’t do much more then interrupt the narrative flow by breaking POV. He hits you with one right up front: ‘… the sickly gray of anchovies’. An apt enough metaphor, but one only a writer would employ, not one a character would use. Nassise does this quite a few times in an effort to be more descriptive than necessary. If you’re writing from a character’s point of view, you ought to stay in character.

Speaking of characters, I didn’t feel as attached to them as I should have or wanted to; they were all fairly similar and fairly bland, with Jake being the most well-done. I could see the puppet strings on occasion as Nassise developed situations that seemed more contrived than organic, the result being that the story felt a bit ‘forced’ at times. The most obvious case of this is at the very beginning (probably the worst place to have it), when Jake’s construction foreman get all nervous and scared and gray (as an anchovy) when he discovers (gasp!) a covered staircase that (shudder!) probably leads to (ohmygod) a HIDDEN STOREROOM! I’m trying to be funny, but the emotions and reactions of the characters should feel authentic and be convincing. Sometimes, in Riverwatch they didn’t.

Despite my quibbles, I found this to be an admirable first effort and a commendable addition to the Boogeyman sub-genre. If Nassise’s skills continue to develop, he will no doubt become a popular author. If you’re on the lookout for new talent, give this one a try, and keep an eye out for his next.

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