The Devil’s Children and Standing on the Threshold of Madness by Benjamin Blake
Review by Dan Rabarts
Benjamin Blake’s The Devil’s Children is a coming-home story, a tale of two young men who have left the small town behind them, but the town has never really let them go. Fuelled by nostalgia, the pointlessness of their existences, and a gnawing sense of things left undone, Harry and Adam return to their hometown of Wycombe, Massachusetts with plans to relive their easy-going teen years in a haze of beer fumes and cigarette smoke, only to find that things are not how they remember. The town is plagued by strange happenings, and so they set about investigating – when they’re not drinking or hunting fruitlessly for their lost phones.
It’s not just the town that’s haunted, though. The boys are tied to the town itself both by the events of their youth, and by bonds of blood that go back generations.
The Devil’s Children nods toward the small town horror of Stephen King and the frantic, handheld blur of Blair Witch, even if the scares never quite achieve those same bone-chilling qualities. This may be because the story is quite content to step back into humour both light and black at a moment’s notice, as if our sometimes hapless, however noble, heroes, could well be portrayed on the screen by an earnest Jack Black and a bewildered Seth Rogan running through the bush in the dark with their torches pointing up their noses rather than, you know, lighting up the bush. Harry and Adam are likeable everyman protagonists, and The Devil’s Children strives to blend the easy rough-and-tumble of a buddy story with deeper, darker elements of murder, secret torture, and blood rites that bond man and demon in an embrace of centuries. It makes for a light, easy read, with enough bloodshed and frights to keep the edge on, and plenty of comic relief. I read this on the plane from Wellington to Sydney, and it was exactly the sort of read I needed at the time.
Standing on the Threshold of Madness, on the other hand, is a collection of dark, short poetry. Unlike Children, Madness has no release valve to ease up on the morbidity. The overall theme of this collection is one of a firelit skull mocking the inevitable, bloody ends that humanity must spiral towards, taunted by the promise of love while discovering that only pain awaits us. This is a poetry collection that many will find uncomfortable or even confronting, with its preoccupation with the death or at least agony of the characters who people the works. I personally found the constant depictions of violence—or the outcomes of violence, particularly against women—a bit much, but the book is published as horror, so we should not expect to read this and feel safe or secure while doing so. We should feel harrowed. Poetry is a personal experience, more so than other forms of fiction, and so in that regard this collection struck a chord for me personally. For better or worse, the work has impact.
Blake has a certain talent for turns of phrase that capture fragments of insight and suffering like broken pieces of glass scattered across a road and catching the rays of a nearby gaslight. Throughout the collection there are moments when the poetry really shines in this way, visceral if sometimes a touch self-indulgent. The collection is built on the layering of these micro-fictions, the repetition and variation on the exploration of the relationship between craving and fearing death from a hundred angles, every shard sharp enough to cut. Not for the faint of heart, but buried in these words there are some gems worthy of digging for.
The Devil’s Children (James Ward Kirk Publishing, 2016)
Standing on the Threshold of Madness(Parallel Universe Publications, 2017)