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Night Watchman, by James V. Viscosi
Genre: Horror
Publisher: Hard Shell Word Factory
Published: 2002
Review Posted: 2/6/2008
Reviewer Rating:
Reader Rating: Not Rated

Night Watchman, by James V. Viscosi

Book Review by Mike Swope

Have you read this book?

For readers who savor details, Night Watchman is a feast. Few books capture details as clearly as James Viscosi in Night Watchman. Viscosi gets extensive extra credit for descriptive writing that makes most of the scenes in Night Watchman vivid and real, like some places we know, or at least some places we imagine that we might know. Nearly every descriptive word in Night Watchman hits the mark. I can't recall now, writing this review, any that miss the mark. Readers will certainly feel, as I have, that they recognize the places in Night Watchman, or the places are as they would be should readers happen upon them. Fortunately, Night Watchman doesn't rely on descriptions alone.

Night Watchman tells the story of Nate Watson, a regular Island City cop who is ritualistically murdered by a small band of juvenile delinquents and resurrected as a zombie with retractable chains, trying to figure out why he has become undead, what role the delinquents play in the story as it unfolds, and how to stop them since they have also become undead. Nate, of course, having been a police officer, a protector of the innocent, is a good zombie. The juvies, though not the flesh-eating variety, are bad zombies who think killing people in bloody, violent and painful but imaginative ways is nothing but fun. Along the way, Nate discovers that the zombie scenario has been created and orchestrated by Nicholas Fenton, a dead real estate developer who has devised a plan to harness the power of souls he has already stolen -- and plans to steal in the future -- to fuel his private version of paradise for the woman he loved 40 years before.

Getting into the heads of his characters is another thing that Viscosi does well in Night Watchman. Viscosi's best characters in Night Watchman have distinct and unique personalities, and he shows us this story in turn through their eyes. The most interesting characters in this book are William "Billy" Henderson, a troubled teen turned skinless zombie henchman; Ellie Watson, wife of the dead-cop-turned-undead-night-watchman who has a one-night stand with an uninspired but gentle policeman just days after her husband's other worldly transformation; and Yolanda, a stereotypically black, all-knowing, friendly psychic. These characters are the most likable and interesting in the book, if a bit clichéd. Overall, Viscosi has done an admirable job writing from the point of view of his characters and showing us what they feel and say and witness, which underscores the superb details and descriptions to further convince readers to suspend their disbelief.

But the willing suspension of disbelief is not completely earned by Viscosi's Night Watchman, despite the strengths already discussed. The story begins in a world very much like our own and ends in a world with unfamiliar supernatural laws with only the vaguest notion of how it is all possible. I find this world hard to imagine and understand, though regular readers of horror might be completely at ease with such. I also find Nicholas Fenton's motives problematic, especially since it is revealed only very late in the book, a cracker jack in the last pages, intended to wrap up the mystery in a paradox: Fenton, clearly evil, does it all for love. I don't mind that this is clichéd, like a few of the characters, but for this book it is unsatisfying. Viscosi does not suggest or reveal this love interest at an earlier point. Or if he does, it is so subtle, unconvincing, and apparently unimportant that it is ineffective.

I also find Nate's character unsatisfying. Though the book is named for him, Nate has ephemeral, foggy purposes. For half the book, Nate wanders uncertainly through Island City trying to cope with what he has become and deciding what he should do about the teen zombies, and his own undead condition. For a policeman, he's uncharacteristically indecisive and impotent, even hides behind dumpsters. Though we might construe this as simply symptomatic of becoming a zombie, the other zombies in Viscosi's tale have no problem at all making decisions and acting upon them. Since Nate's character earns this book's title, and Nate's retractable chains earn the art on the cover, I am disappointed that his character is not a hero in any traditional sense. In fact, I find that I admire his wife Ellie more since she takes action to solve Nate's problem of being undead. Throughout the book, I want Nate's character to do... more. Nate is so vanilla that it really comes as no surprise when Ellie sleeps with Andy, the kind, gentle policeman mentioned earlier, only days after Nate's transformation. So much for heroes, love and marriage.

Despite Night Watchman's unsatisfying elements, the book is an engaging read, so much so that it is difficult to put it down. Viscosi's undead teenage zombies, especially Billy, are interesting characters. The first half of the book is fun just trying to guess what they will do next, how they will do it, and to whom. The blossoming romance between Ellie and Andy should also interest readers as it evolves from their characters naturally, not mechanically. But the most engrossing elements of Night Watchman are Viscosi's vivid, well-crafted details, which draw readers in to witness the story as it unfolds. Viscosi's descriptions demonstrate a surgically keen eye and imagination for the dark and the beautiful, wrinkles, pimples and all. For Night Watchman, the journey -- and what we see along the way -- is the tale.
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