The Dark Game by Jonathan Janz
Book Review by Shane Douglas Keene
“Lucy reached up, fingered the sweaty fabric of the blindfold. “Mind if I take this off?”
No answer from her driver. Around her the limo juddered like a malfunctioning carnival ride.”
Those two enigmatic lines are the beginning of a book that I presupposed to be easy to write a review of, then discovered as I undertook the task that I was completely mistaken. I mean, the book literally lives in my mind right now. I’ve been thinking incessantly about the story and yearning to just dive into another Janz novel and forget everything else, and it seems like, with all that time spent dwelling on it, that I should have a zillion things to say about it. And I do. The problem is, with most of them I can’t. Because to say too much about the content of the novel would be to risk spoiling the fuck out of it. It’s one of those types of tales that bear keys to the plot on nearly every page, and exposing them to potential readers would completely ruin it. But here I am, giving it the old college try as they say, and I am going to tell you about this book come hell or high water.
In The Dark Game, Jonathan Janz’s new novel from Flame Tree Press, we are introduced to a cast of thirteen main characters, some of whom we are on the path to quick goodbyes with, and some that we are about to become intimately familiar with and highly invested in. Ten failing authors, either one hit wonders or never published, have been brought to Wells Forest to participate in a contest, the winner of whom will win a major publishing contest and a buttload of money. But there’s more than meets the eye to the enigmatic Roderick Wells, and this is no ordinary writing contest. No, this is, as the title implies, a dark fucking game and before the journey is through, you may find yourself with a sudden pressing need to sleep with every light in the house on. Janz knows terror and he wastes no time burying you in it as he plunges you headlong into a nightmare of epic proportions.
While the story spends enough backstory on all the key characters to give them dimension, the primary focus is mainly centered around two protagonists, Lucy Still and Rick Forrester, as they delve deeper and deeper into the mysteries that abound. I’m not going to tell you a hell of a lot more about the plot of the story–those keys I don’t want to give away–but I am going to spend some time talking to you about the commendable job Janz does with the characterizations in this thing, not just of the individuals but the group as a whole. As I write this review and think about the characterizations and character interactions, it has me wondering how much he’s consciously, intentionally studied group dynamics. Because he demonstrated a solid grasp of them in Children of the Dark, but the interactions in that book pale by comparison to The Dark Game. The dialogue, the back and forth, the physical and philosophical dealings between the various players, is the skeleton of the entire thing and performs as any good underframe does. It both holds the body of the story up and propels it forward, keeping it constantly in motion and engaging, and causing his characters to leap off the page and into your heart. Jonathan knows people as well as any author and better than most.
In fact, here’s a trigger warning for you: I and many other critics hate the comparison I’m about to make, but I feel compelled to make it anyway. Jonathan Janz’s character studies, if they must be compared, are most closely reminiscent of Stephen King’s. Yes, I said that. He’s intimately familiar with his characters, their quirks, and nuances. He studies their inner workings and shows us not just the shiny outside, but the immensely broken, fucked up insides of some of these characters. One thing that Janz does with every story is inject something of himself into it, and it’s always recognizable to me not because it’s transparent, but because it’s passionate. He feels deeply about his subject matter and the people he creates and he applies himself in such a way as to make you feel like the book is a literal piece of him. This statement is probably more true of The Dark Game than any other book he’s written, except for maybe The Nightmare Girl.
And speaking of characterizations, it would be remiss of me not to mention the setting. Wells Forest, A Place of Magic. Magic indeed. Of the blackest variety you can possibly imagine. What does this have to do with character? Again, a Janz specialty. He has an exceptional ability when it comes to turning a place into a living, breathing thing, an integral player in the story, and he does so here better than he ever has before. The forest and the mansion bleed threat and foreboding at every turn and, in their own ways, are themselves antagonists in this waking nightmare of a novel from one of the great minds in the horror biz. The atmosphere is oppressive and exudes dread and the potential for horrific injury on every page. Jonathan Janz has taken a familiar trope and completely subverted it, and the setting is like the queen in a game of chess. A key piece that has the potential to move in any direction, thereby making her the most dangerously unpredictable player on the board.
If you’ve read Janz’s body of work, you’ll be delighted at the enticing little easter eggs he’s sprinkled throughout his story, giving nods to The Siren and the Specter and Children of the Dark to name a few. The Siren and the Specter, in particular, plays a pretty large role in the novel, in a way I can’t tell you, but many of his other books also make little cameo appearances. And the odd thing about it is, though they come from other works of fiction, they somehow add a sense of reality, of veracity if you will, to this magnificently dark tale. And if you haven’t read his previous stuff, number one, you should, and two, the easter eggs won’t get in your way or detract from your understanding or enjoyment of the story. They are merely little blips on the radar that assist in moving the novel along.
Now, let me share one last thing that I thought was absolutely marvelous. And I guess I’m really sharing without sharing at all. The ending of the story was fucking near perfect. Janz gets playful and there’s a little tongue-in-cheek scene that caused me to guffaw so loud I woke my wife and my three dogs from a deep slumber. There’s nothing quite as satisfying as a book that buys you in with its premise, then hits you with a huge payoff in the end. Everything about the storytelling in this tale is way beyond perfect in my opinion and it now holds the honor of being one of my top two Jonathan Janz novels and one of my favorite horror reads of the 21st Century so far. If you’ve read his work, you already know you need The Dark Game. If you haven’t read him, yeah, you need to unfuck that. Start right here.
About Jonathan Janz:
Jonathan Janz is the author of more than a dozen novels and numerous short stories. His work has been championed by authors like Joe R. Lansdale, Brian Keene, and Jack Ketchum; he has also been lauded by Publishers Weekly, Library Journal, and School Library Journal. His ghost story The Siren and the Specter was selected as a Goodreads Choice Awards nominee for Best Horror. Additionally, his novel Children of the Dark was chosen by Booklist as a Top Ten Horror Book of the Year. Jonathan’s main interests are his wonderful wife and his three amazing children. You can sign up for his newsletter, and you can follow him on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, Amazon, and Goodreads.