Ghostland by Duncan Ralston
Book Review by Tony Jones
Fancy a ticket to the opening day of a ghost theme park…
What could possibly go wrong?
I’ve been wracking my brains trying to think of another horror novel featuring a theme park with real ghosts, there is bound to be one out there, if not, well done to Duncan Ralston for making every horror hound’s childhood dream a reality! The always versatile Ralston’s latest creation lovingly meshes horror, technology, action with a scary brand of black humour and should appeal to many genre fans. As entertaining and very easy to read novels go, Ghostland might not be deep or particularly cerebral, but it jogs along at pace and is the perfect antidote to lift you when the dark winter nights drift in. A certain Michael Crichton did something similar with dinosaurs (no guessing now) and in the 1970s we had the original West World, the same gimmick but with guns and hats.
The basic premise of Ghostland is simple but very effective. When the novel opens it is announced that in 2019 ‘Recurrence Field Technology’ have provided scientific evidence that ghosts are real, and that manifestations occurring after death are a fairly natural phenomenon. However, this does not necessarily mean you will see your long death granny skipping down the street when you’re doing your shopping, but the science boffins behind the ‘Ghostworld’ theme park have utilised cutting edge technology and figured out a way capture real ghosts in fixed loops of a few minutes. These loops are triggered by the theme park visitors who are wearing headgear which work in a similar way to 3D eyepieces. The wide range of ghosts featured are larger than life and once the novel picks up pace the body count mounts, they come thick and fast, with some truly nasty and vindictive characters thrown into the mix. The kindle version also includes an ingenious interactive index; “Know Your Ghosts: A Ghost Hunter’s Guide to Ghostland” which I had fun with. You can choose to hyper-click as you read along or pick the text up afterwards, make sure you check it out though, there is a lot of detail here.
Set in Duck Falls, Maryland, the prologue really grabs and is set four years before the park officially opens. Best friends, 14-year-olds Lilian Roth and Ben Laramie, are absorbed in the computer game ‘Infinite Zombie’ when an old house trundles past on the back of a truck. Looking out the window, Ben spots a ghostly figure whom he is certain he recognises, wrapped in fear he had a heart attack and almost dies. The man he believes he saw lurking in the window plays an integral part in this cleverly plotted novel.
The story then jumps forward four years and the two former best friends have barely spoken since the episode in which Ben almost lost his life. After critical heart surgery and countless medical appointments Ben is on the mend but still misses his former best friend whom he still sees around the corridors at school and has struggled to make new friendships, now known to many as ‘Dead Kid’. The teen friendship angle was nicely judged, it does not dominate the story but the dynamics between the two main characters are crucial to the overall success of Ghostland and as they rekindle their old friendship, the teen-sparks add a nice human angle to balance the supernatural shenanigans. Lilian, at 18 however, is not the computer geek she was at 14. Hey, welcome to the real world, girls often mature quicker and leave us guys behind.
Many readers will get right behind Ben Laramie as he is one of our horror tribe! He is a huge fan of Rex Gattote, a notorious horror author who wrote a series of successful and trashy hits, with names likes the ‘The House Feeds’ and even had a short-lived TV show in the mid-1990s called ‘Ghost World’. Garrote died in mysterious circumstances and after his death, his will and personal horror collection, provided the backbone for the horror theme park where the action takes place. These story strands were neatly connected by the ghostly figure Ben believes he saw in the window four years earlier.
The scene is then very nicely set for the non-stop action which takes place on the opening day of Ghostland, and hey, you just know things are doing to go wrong. They head south even quicker than Jurassic Park, and Duncan Ralston soon has the old friends reunited, with a motley band of survivors joining in the struggle, fighting for their lives once there is a horrible glitch (guess who?) which makes the ghost very, very dangerous. Things could be worse; you might have a heart condition….
If you’re familiar with the fiction of Duncan Ralston prepare for something slightly different as it is not as gross or violent as some of his other work. I always enjoy seeing authors branching out of their comfort zone, so Ghostland is an engaging creative change of direction. It is very accessible and might even find a YA audience, all the gadgetry is entertaining and the way in which the two main characters use their computer game skills to survive made quite a lot of sense. If I was a character in this novel I would probably be killed off in the opening hour! Having said that, I’m old enough to be a veteran on the original Resident Evil on the first Play Station and I was pretty good at that, so perhaps I might survive longer, but whether I would last long enough to enter Garrote’s house I doubt….
Billed as “the most terrifying man in the world” the spectre of Rex Garrote lurks in the computer back-servers of the theme park and even though it was very much a tecky horror, having this malevolent presence helped the book hang onto the trashy 1970s horror vibe and you might be guessing whether Ralston based him upon one or more genuine writers?
It might not be particularly scary, but as horror novels go Ghostland is way out there and as far-fetched as they come. Surely on some level every true fan of this genre wishes the paranormal is real, that is until they stumble upon one of Ralston’s creations which will put you off theme parks for life. It’s a thriller of a ride which grabs from the prologue and, considering it is quite long for an action/adventure horror, keeps the pace going admirably until the outstanding ending.
Finally, if you to Duncan Ralston’s website you can snag the free story The Moving House (this is the house which brings on Ben’s heart attack and eventually ends up as the centre piece in the theme park) which is a prequel to Ghostland. In 2014, inventor Sara Jane Amblin and Christopher Hedgewood, heir to the Hedgewood fortune, tour Garrote House one final time… though neither of them has been there at night, alone. And they couldn’t possibly prepare for what the house will do to visitors.
And who is Rex Garrote anyway? I heard the dude even had a Wikipedia entry now…..