We all know good writing and we all know bad writing, but what about the stuff in-between, writing that simply exists on the page without any atrocious similes or tone-deaf dialogue or unbelievable coincidences, no passages that take poetic flight or shine with human insight, writing that only tells a story quietly and efficiently? I hardly knew it was possible to write in such an unadorned manner until reading the paperback original Dead White by Alan Ryan. A detailed moment here or there in the narrative made me think this book was Stephen King-lite, but even that is inaccurate as King's style is famously colorful, homespun, and even vulgar; Ryan can barely be said to have a style at all. Which isn't necessarily a criticism, for the story itself, as well as the suspense generated by short, time-stamped chapters, is just enough to keep a casual reader's interest.
The setting is comfortably familiar: the New York Catskills town of Deacons Kill is beset by an enormous snowstorm that cuts it off from whatever civilization exists outside it. Endless, but not quite tiresome, descriptions of the hushing nature of snow abound. In fact that got me to ruminate that, at least to me, cold weather seems quintessentially "horror" in the same way that a very hot weather seems quintessentially "crime." Think of At the Mountains of Madness or The Thing, The Terror, The Dead Zone, or The Search for Joseph Tully, then think of Body Heat or the greenhouse opening scene in The Big Sleep, or the entire sub-sub crime genre of "Florida noir" and writers like Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, James W. Hall, and Carl Hiaasen. But I digress.
Into this snow-blasted landscape comes a mysterious old train bearing the legend Stanton Stokely's Stupendous Circus. And you know what comes with a circus. Yep, clowns. Ryan does creepy clowns pretty well; nothing too blood-chilling but still. As for the characters, I almost want to call them cliched: the stern but kindly old doctor, the first-time sheriff who knows everyone in town is waiting to see if he'll screw up, the young woman who is learning to assert herself, the beleaguered husband and the harridan wife, the bratty little kid, the superstitious old black woman, the weird circus ringleader who speaks with polite gentility, and oh yeah, those ghostly clowns that float and cavort silently in the snow. Ryan takes all the time in the world to get to where he's going, but it's an inoffensive little journey, a slow build to a fair-enough climax. Dead White does what it does just well enough so it doesn't seem a waste of time. If that sounds like a recommendation, it is; if not, that's cool too.
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