Nowadays, I tend to be pretty picky when it comes to reading horror fiction. Much of the work out there is shoddy, even exploitative, and completely bereft of scares. I’ve consequently kept my focus primarily on established authors and a rare few unknowns that look promising.
This wasn’t always the case: when I was in my teens, I would indiscriminately snatch anything off the bookshelves that had the word ‘horror’ on the binding. Most of the time I was sorely disappointed, but every once in a while I found something nice.
One of the books I discovered back then is Stickman, by Seth Pfefferle. I dug it out of my collection a couple of nights ago and gave it a reread, and it still holds up pretty well, even though I first read it as a teen in 1987!
The premise of the book is charming: those primitive paintings found in Africa of sticklike hunters bringing down prey are not simply crude drawings of human hunters, rather they represent an ancient and mostly vanished race of sticklike beings who would venture into our world from the spirit world to hunt. The novel focuses on one of these stickmen, the most powerful and possibly the last of its kind, stalking and killing members of an expedition through the African savanna. If you need a catchier image, think Predator with an eating disorder.
In the wake of a civil war that has ravaged the (unnamed) African country, a U.S. documentary film crew is found brutally murdered. When the local officials fail to find the perpetrators, a pair of U.S. Senators and their entourage make a trip to investigate the situation themselves. They meet with the local warlord, and his foreign-hired mercenaries, and a small contingent heads out to investigate the murder site. While in the wilds, problems – natural and unnatural – begin to arise, and soon a small group of survivors are left to fight against the supernatural stickman.
For all the potential silliness of the subject matter, the book is quite effective. The supernatural threat of the stickman is balanced with gritty descriptions of the after-effects of the civil war. Refugees beg for food, hungry animals attack, and nameless victims of violence are left lying by the side of the road. The protagonists are often forced to forego their humanity in favor of survival.
The only real flaw in the book are the sometimes cartoonish behaviors of the characters. One character’s descent into madness seems rushed and over the top, and another character’s oafishness is exaggerated at times to the point of annoyance.
In total, though, I found the book an enjoyable and rather unconventional read. Its attempt to put a horror face on the art and mysticism of Africa is quite successful. The author seems to have written no more books after this one, which is a shame.
I’ll be digging through some more of my old horror novels in the future to find some other forgotten gems!