Its been a long wait for American lovers of the macabre. Graham Joyce's disturbing, mesmerizing dark fantasy "The Tooth Fairy" knocked Britain for a loop in 1996 when it was first released. It went on to win the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, and all the while the United States has been patiently waiting for it to make its stateside appearance.
That time has come.
"The Tooth Fairy" lives up to its hype and should have little problem becoming an instant classic. Joyce's coming-of-age tale mixed with a pitch-black fairy tale is chilling, touching, and ultimately unforgettable. It's as if the Brothers Grimm reinterpreted Stephen King's novella "The Body" (which went on to become the basis for the film "Stand by Me").
In the English Midlands of the 1960s, three young boys are grappling with the typical trials and tribulations of coming-of-age. But one of them, Sam Southall, has a particularly unique problem. One night after putting a tooth under his pillow, he awakes to find a disgusting, horrifying beast in his bedroom. Identifying itself as the Tooth Fairy, it is as shocked as Sam to find that Sam can see it, since it has always been able to move invisibly through the human world.
Thus begins the complex friendship between Sam and this beast. The Tooth Fairy is at turns friendly, violent, and sexual. One moment he can be showing Sam the wonders of the constellations with a telescope, and the next he can be showing him how to masturbate in the middle of Sunday School class. Or, if the Tooth Fairy is in a particularly dark mood, he may just physically hurt Sam for telling others about the Tooth Fairy.
What makes the book truly frightening, however, is that the Tooth Fairy is an extremely complex being, capable of developing very human emotions and acting on them just as irrationally as we might -- or more so. Over the years, as Sam approaches his teenage years, the Tooth Fairy develops an obsession with him. Appealing to Sam's pending puberty, the Tooth Fairy alters itself into a repugnant, but oddly erotic, female form. And in its efforts to keep Sam to itself, it has the terrifying tendency to hurt -- or even kill -- anyone who threatens Sam's happiness. And pity the person who dares to compete with the Tooth Fairy for Sam's affections -- such as, perhaps, the pretty tomboy who is the cause of jealousies between the three friends.
"The Tooth Fairy" is quiet, subtle horror at its finest. Joyce is a master at luring you into a false sense of security. The novel even opens with a peaceful scene of the young boys dipping their feet into the local pond. But, not two paragraphs into the book, tragedy strikes.
Clive was on the far side of the green pond, torturing a king-crested newt. Sam and Terry languished under a vast oak, offering their chubby white feet to the dark water. The sprawling oak leaned out across the mirroring pond, dappling the water's surface with clear reflections of leaf and branch and of acorns ripening slowly in verdant cups.
It was high summer. Pigeons cooed softly in the trees, and Clive's family picnicked nearby. Two older boys fished for perch about thirty yards away. Sam saw the pike briefly. At first he thought he was looking at a submerged log. It hung inches below the surface, utterly still, like something suspended in ice. Green and gold, it was a phantom, a spirit from another world. Sam tried to utter a warning, but the apparition of the pike had him mesmerized. It flashed at the surface of the water as it came up to take away, in a single bite, the two smallest toes of Terry's left foot.
Joyce knows that horror in fiction should be unpredictable and sudden -- just like in real life. The millions who feasted this winter on the silver screen's "Scream 2" might be disappointed in the low body count of "The Tooth Fairy", but Joyce smartly realizes that keeping the suspense concentrated in a few, well-timed scenes is more effective than a splatterfest. This is the ultimate fairy tale for adults.
The only problem one might have while reading a book this good is a nagging fear that Joyce may not be able to pull off an ending that measures up to the brilliance that preceded it. Not to worry -- just when you think the author has painted himself into a corner with the complex plotting, he brings "The Tooth Fairy" to a thoroughly satisfying head. Joyce is already one of Britain's hottest sensations. Watch for him to soon have an equally devoted following in the United States. --Matt Schwartz