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Posted December 27, 2012
Damien Walters Grintalis' first novel builds on the promise shown in her published short stories: characterization, solid pacing and a very good sense of when and when not to show us the monster/evil/gore. With the exception of a few key cut-away scenes, Grintalis keeps us firmly in Jason's point of view throughout the book. Thanks to this, we understand why he reaches the (false) conclusions about what's going on that he reaches. In Jason, we're not given just another horror novel lead who is oblivious despite the signs -- we're given someone who sees logical explanations for what's going on around him, until he reaches a point where he realizes what we've known all along: nothing is as it seems. Jason is a character who starts out an emotional wreck, finds a new inner-strength, and then comes to doubt/lose that strength as the real world falls away and he has to make a choice to be the wreck or the strong one. This character arc for Jason is the heart of the book and what makes it not just another gory book about tattoos-gone-bad.
In fact, there isn't a lot of on-screen gore throughout most of the novel. We're given hints about what happens off-screen, but Jason largely sees only the aftermath of these events. This is key not only in allowing him to continue to be slightly oblivious to the truth, but also to the pacing of the novel and the ratcheting up of suspense that Grintalis does so well, and makes the use of gore later in the story that much more effective.
Several supporting characters are well-drawn (pun intended) as well: Jason's ex-wife Shelley, his mother and father, and his new girlfriend Mitch all add flavor to the story. if I have any complaint about the supporting cast, it's that so many of them are so well-crafted that it becomes extremely noticeable when a character is lacking in characterization: Alex, the gum-chewing kid from up the block, feels like a macguffin at the most, a place-holder at the least. For a character mentioned so often and who is a focus of Jason's rationalizations for what's going on, he feels the most "stock" of the supporting cast.
And then there's the tattoo artist Jason calls "Sailor," who goes by the name John S. Iblis. "Sailor" creeped me out from the first scene he appears in, and continued to be no less creepy (and in fact, far more so) as the book goes on. Most astute horror readers will recognize right away who "Sailor" actually is, but that doesn't take away from the story itself; who he is isn't the central mystery, after all. What he wants, and whether he'll get it or not, is the question. A question Grintalis answers solidly in a climactic scene that is a bloody, intense, tidal-shifting ride even though it never leaves one room.