...the elemental passion that forever rumbled in his belly:
the delight in the mystical properties of flame, its godlike destructiveness,
its leaping, growing, consuming might.
With cover art that is a near-perfect example of vintage paperback horror fiction, this slim volume from Signet Books is adorned by one of artist Tom Hallman's most dramatically lurid images, bowl-cut notwithstanding. Love how the firelight is reflected in his eyes, a nice derangement of the senses. Dig the menace of the title, Child of Hell, and its glorious ITC Benguiat typeface, stark and unmissable against an inky black background. William Dobson is a perfectly non-descript name (a pseudonym too). Yep, creepy kid, similarity to a previous bestseller (King's Firestarter of course), typeface and tagline—all that's missing is a comparison to The Other or Rosemary's Baby!
When he heard their screams—and they screamed till they died,
and they died neither soon nor easily—he only grinned.
Jeff Angel is a young family man and a firefighter on the rise; while Little Davie is setting his family home alight, the firefighters are have a literal ball. Jeff is chatted up by a delightful woman named Marie, and they argue wittily about the Mad Arsonist, who's been lighting up Midchester for two years now. What motivates him? What's his background? How can he be caught, and how should he be punished? This conversation, as well as the ball itself, is interrupted by the blaze at the Fossets', and Angel is off to fight this war he can never win.
As I said, Child of Hell isn't exactly about a child: Dobson allows Davie to grow up as the novel progresses, and it's a solid narrative arc I think. He's adopted by an older preacher and his wife, Marvin and Teresa Allaun; they're strict adherents of the severe religion that founded the town, the Church of the Lonely Wanderers. One night at dinner our incipient maniac admits—"Speak out straight, lad"—that he wants to be a fireman when he grows up! O irony, like fire, you are an elemental force of the universe.
He watched it all from the shadows beyond the inferno, and gloried in what he was doing, had done, and not with any unholy mirth, but with an awe and wonder at the power that lay in his hands.
Other than those personality tics, Dave grows into a fine upstanding fellow.
Meanwhile, Jeff Angel has married Marie, and they plan to start a family. Jeff's work is paramount, though, and Dobson gets into some police and firefighter politics, with chiefs and officers and all that, filler to make a fuller novel; not boring exactly but not always my favorite type of reading unless handled by a master. With pressure from various city muckety-mucks, the firefighters are determined to catch this arsonist, but Angel often thought that at his retirement party and presentation, he would be handing over the arsonist's dossier to his successor...
Carrie. It's epic, cruel, horrifying. Debby Shearer, the belle of the Armadillo Country Club, is having her nineteenth birthday party there. Our Dave has become a busboy/waiter/bartender there, and even though he is of the lower classes, Debby has her eye on him—and seduces our pyro easily. Thinking of herself as a highborn lady of the eighteenth century, she knows she can take a lover beneath her station and is hidebound neither by convention nor by the acclaim of disapproval of the mob. But she certainly won't marry him... Yes, she's a terrible snob, and you know what happens to snobs in books like these.
And so Child of Hell progresses, twining the stories of Fosset and Angel as they move through normal life, its ups and downs, and the madness of one and the determination of the other. Characterization is economic but believable; there is even some early serial-killer profiling, as Janice reappears in Jeff's world and tries to assist in the identification and capture of the Mad Arson. Was it feasible that a child of six or seven would deliberately destroy his own family by fire, then go on to commit fourteen years of dedicated arson and murder? The mind recoiled away from it. And yet... and yet...
And speaking of perfect covers...
Paperbacks from Hell table of contents