Thursday, March 7, 2019

Child of Hell by William Dobson (1982): Flaming Youth

...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!

Dobson is the pen name of British writer Michael Butterworth (copyright is under this name). Under this name he published Fangs, The Child Player, and The Ripper, all early '80s and also from Signet.  Unfortunately there are two British writers named Michael Butterworth so parsing between the two was tricky, but I'm pretty sure this Butterworth was also a writer of crime thrillers and comic books, while the other Butterworth was a New Wave science fiction publisher and author. Our Butterworth died in 1986 at age 62.

With those bibliographic deets out of the way, let's discuss. Less a horror novel than a psychological potboiler with some very graphic scenes of pyromaniacal mayhem, Child of Hell isn't really about a child at all (thank ye gods), although the novel begins with a little boy of just seven burning down his house with his family inside on Christmas in the non-descript American town of Midchester. Good heavens, why? Well, because instead of the super-cool radio-controlled model fighter plane he asked for, his folks ripped him off with a goddamn cheapo jigsaw puzzle! The discarded wrapping paper smolders in the ash of the dying living room fire and then catches on the Christmas tree branches and*poof*—fire!... and little Davie Fosset runs outside and along with horrified neighbors, watches his family burn to death unable to escape.

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.

Arriving on the scene and finds ambulance nurse Janice Hooper comforting the young survivor. Now Janice nursed neither a motherly nor a platonic regard for the young rookie fireman, and Dobson neatly sets up some romantic interests for our ostensible hero within the first 10 pages. Then Janice hears the boy mutter that weirdo phrase again: goddamned cheapo jigsaw puzzle...

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.

Then we follow Dave through grade school and college, with terrible glimpses of his fire mania and growing hatred toward the women who reject him. When making a date, he mutters to himself, You'd better be there, you little prick-teasing bitch, or you'll be goddamn sorry. He traps vagrants in abandoned buildings and then sets them alight.

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...

About halfway through the novel Dobson sets up a major setpiece of conflagratory terror, hearkening to the climax of 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...

Dobson writes well enough, his dialogue doesn't distract (at times it sounds a little plummy),  and his ability to generate suspense is laudable. I did though notice a few particulars that either made me wince or laugh. His sex scenes, well, he's the kind of writer who uses the phrases "amatory vocabulary" and "couplings" and even, god save us, "darling." More distressing is the appearance, albeit brief, of  sibling incest, almost as if paperback horror contracts of the '80s were written with an ironclad clause that could not be unheeded. I had a chuckle at Dobson's failure to convince me he knew anything about America.

You'll be happy to hear I've not even mentioned all of the twists and turns and shocks that make up the entirety of this barely 200-page novel. Dobson is great at scenes of fiery destruction, at depicting Dave's psychopathic desires that he can suppress for a time—he even meets a nice girl! the killer fell in love at first sight—but oh how it can't be denied.When Dave lights up a theater full of retirees at a matinee, he sits eating a burger and watches it burn, in the curious amalgam of tension and relaxation, of cold-bloodedness and erotic excitement that informed his excursions into death, disfigurement, and destruction. As a fireman, how can he ever be suspected? How can he ever be found out? Dave Fosset has the perfect cover. Yes, Child of Hell brings the goods, hot and ready for you.

And speaking of perfect covers...

Paperbacks from Hell table of contents


Authorfan said...

Wonderful post. I need to get this book ASAP.

Barlow Straker said...

Martin, you saw my video review of this on my channel didnt you? I loved this book actually.