Another day, another dollar out of my pocket and into the welcoming hands of a thrift store as I hungrily scrape paperback horror novels off the shelves like some kind of rabid beaver hell bent on creating a damn out of cheap paper. But you better not get too comfy in this beaver book barge, cause there is something stalking the streets of London, and it’s out for blood. Mild spoilers ahead.
There are certain warning words to look for when you’re reading pull quotes on the back of a book. One of the most obvious is “unusual.” It’s a word that doesn’t necessarily have negative connotations, but it is often used when there is no other nicer word that will fit. So you can imagine my trepidation when I picked up The Nightwalker and found this on the back cover:
“Excellent . . . an emotional experience . . . the most unusual occult novel I have ever read.” —Peter Straub
Which, OK, it does call the book excellent, but the fact that they had to pull the word completely out of context, combined with the use of “unusual,” had me concerned. That word combo could mean a lot of things, but with 70s and 80s horror it often boils down to strange adjective choices and at least one physics-defying sex scene. Thankfully, not the case with Thomas Tessier‘s The Nightwalker, which turned out to be a skillfully written, fast-paced little horror novel with a fresh take on a supernatural subgenre. How’s that for a pull quote?
In The Nightwalker, Vietnam vet Bobby Ives’s trouble begins when he thinks his apartment building is burning down. After rushing around the halls in fear, he realizes that it’s just some smoke from his neighbor burning dinner. Normal people would feel relief, but Bobby is outraged. So he beats the careless man unconscious for being a slob.
It’s not very neighborly, but Bobby doesn’t have time to think about it because there are so many weird things happening to him. First he starts zoning out while buying vitamins, then he catches himself starting at his hands for ten minutes. His girlfriend, Annie, is convinced it’s just a migraine, but Bobby thinks it has something to do with a past life where he died and became a zombie (???). Both theories kinda go out the window though when Bobby (accidentally?) kills Annie by pushing her in front of a bus.
Miraculously no one notices the tall American shoving a young woman to her death, so Bobby goes to the bar for a drink and a game of pool before heading home to try to figure out why his hands and feet feel so hot. The obvious answer is to go to a doctor, but he can’t do that. What with all his weird behavior lately, he can’t guarantee he won’t mention something about murdering his girlfriend.
So where do you go when you’re experiencing strange health issues and uncontrollable rage? A psychic, of course. Miss Tanith, who is young and hot, examines Bobby’s head and hands until he has a boner, and then tells him that she can’t help him in the most frustrating way possible by rejecting him while hinting she could cure him. “. . . you are a troubled person and further sessions are indicated. But they would be painful, and either you would stop them or I would.”
Since Miss Tanith was no help at all, Bobby decides to pick up a young, homeless punk girl and demand that she bleed period blood on his chest before they have sex. It’s a hell of a kink, made creepier when later Bobby renames her Angel and tells her “I’m your father now.”
But while the particulars of the scene are squicky, Tessier uses the discomfort to launch his main character into full blown villainy, and it works. If this woman can understand him, maybe there isn’t anything wrong with him after all. “The question of why he had killed that man so savagely, and Annie so abruptly, still surfaced in his mind every day. But he could cope with the lack of an answer. . . . There had been nothing premeditated about those deaths. They had simply happened.”
Of course, even if Bobby doesn’t need to know why he kills, the reader does, and in that, Tessier doesn’t disappoint. Because it turns out The Nightwalker has one final surprise up its sleeve. Until this point, the whole novel could just be one man’s descent into madness—another Vietnam War vet who is watching his world crumble as he tries to cope with the horrors he’s seen. But Tessier isn’t interested in such a literary approach, and just when it seems like Bobby has found some kind of control, Tessier drops the perfect supernatural bomb. Surprise! This is actually a [REDACTED] story.
It turns out Mr. Straub was right. The Nightwalker is an unusual book. But it’s unusual for all the right reasons. Instead of questionable writing or outrageous plots, The Nightwalker takes a well worn sub genre in a direction I (and clearly Mr. Straub) have never seen before. Tessier made a bold choice when he decided to keep his twist a secret for the first half of the story. But that choice is exactly why the novel works: we’re as clueless as Bobby, and that’s truly scary.
Looking for more top-notch terror? Don’t sleep on Anne Rivers Siddons’ The House Next Door.