The Hour Before Dark, by Douglas Clegg

the-hour-before-dark-by-douglas-clegg coverGenre: Horror
Publisher: Dorchester Publishing Company
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: fourand a half stars
Book Review by William D. Gagliani

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There’s that real estate joke about how the top three selling points are “location, location, location.” In horror, to draw a not-so-scientific parallel, sometimes it’s all about “atmosphere, atmosphere, atmosphere.”

Douglas Clegg is no newcomer to this field, and in reality needs no introduction. If you love this playground of the dark and of the darkness in men’s souls, then you probably don’t need to be told that (at the very least) YOU COME WHEN I CALL YOU, THE HALLOWEEN MAN, THE NIGHTMARE CHRONICLES, and THE INFINITE all belong on your shelves. If you haven’t yet read Clegg, then these four would surely constitute a fair introduction. THE HOUR BEFORE DARK is his new novel, and you’ll find plenty of atmosphere in it, along with a few more elements sure to rub your scary bone the right way.

“You can’t go home again,” Thomas Wolfe wrote, and Doug Clegg seems to have added: “and if you do, you can be sure it won’t be pleasant.” In fact, he appears to have made it his chosen theme. His protagonists are arguably all outcasts, whose banishments are sometimes self-imposed but who suffer none the less keenly for it, especially when some circumstance finds them having to brave their way back … Home. In choosing that theme consciously or subconsciously, Clegg has tapped into what is either a fear or a fact in everyone’s lives — the fear of returning, the fear of being rejected, and the fear of facing whatever demons chased you away in the first place. What a thematic thunderbolt is this — what a powerhouse of stories waiting to be told. Who among us hasn’t felt one of these fears? Such a theme serves as a supremely effective hook.

Here, the returning outcast is Fergus (“Nemo”) Raglan, one of three siblings whose past is inextricably tied to a remote island off the northeast coast. The reason for his return is the particularly gruesome murder of his father, who was found butchered in the smokehouse during an autumn storm. When Nemo returns, distraught and none too secure in his life, he finds his brother Bruno and his sister Brooke both inhabiting the quirky, deteriorating family manse, and the local police unable to catch the killer. Forced to rekindle relationships with his siblings and the town after a decade’s absence (or exile), Nemo dedicates himself to determining who murdered his father — reopening family wounds, revealing secrets, and eventually coming face to face with the Dark Game, which the Raglans played until it became an obsession, leading up to a strange shared loss of time and memory shortly after their mother left them. Now Nemo has no choice but to try to remember what the Game did or didn’t do, and why they played. Why does even the memory of the Dark Game make him nervous? Along the way, Nemo struggles with the lost love of his youth, a high school romance that went wrong at about the same time his life did. And whatever happened to the senior Raglan seems destined to happen again.

Clegg’s straightforward literary style is amazingly effective, often poetic. Nemo tells his own story, which is perhaps daring as it eliminates the others’ direct point of view, but also ultimately appropriate. Nemo’s fears and regrets regarding his headlong rush away from his home and family ring poignant and true, and his ambivalence toward a father he both loved and didn’t also strikes the proper chord. The bleakness of a desolate island and its village lends the tale an authentically atmospheric background, too, giving the novel a pseudo-Gothicism reinforced by the Raglan mansion and its rooms-leading-to-rooms floor plan. Though some aspects of the mystery can be guessed a bit early on, the fact that the novel remains gripping to the end proves Clegg’s skill at manipulating his characters and events in a sort of ever tightening ballet of suspense. THE HOUR BEFORE DARK clearly demonstrates his progression to the field’s upper ranks, making every next novel a must-read.

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