"Mister White" Book Review
Written by Jeff Tolbert
Published by Grey Matter Press
Written by John C. Foster
2016, 279 pages, Fiction
Released on April 5th, 2016
Horror fans, I think it’s fair to say, have a hard lot. Because of the nature of the genre we claim as our own, we have to deal with a certain amount of insipid, thoughtless pandering—pandering which usually misses the mark. What I mean is that, because horror often deals with violence, monsters, and other grotesqueries, the people in charge of producing and marketing it sometimes unfairly assume that horror fans are thoughtless morons who will wet themselves with glee over gory dismemberments and familiar see-it-a-mile-off scares. I assume they assume this, anyway, because that’s the kind of shit we often get: recycled, insultingly low-brow, bloody nonsense.
To be fair there are plenty of people who do like that stuff, and if you are one of these, you can probably find one of the Hatchet sequels on Chiller right now, you poor dear. But other fans prefer a subtler shade of horror, one that depends less on dripping viscera and more on the implications of something existing that should not, and on ancient evils thought to be fictions but revealed at last to be horribly true. Also we like to read books. So, you know.
Of course all of this sets up an unnecessarily simple binary: plenty of people like both things, and both things often appear together in the genre. But the apparent dichotomy points to what I take as a given: namely, the difficulty of doing both things well in a single work. We often get violent, gory awfulness, or we get smart, brooding chills; seldom do we get both together in equal measure.
Mister White is an exception. Author John C. Foster manages the surprising feat of grafting a spy novel onto a demonic horror romp, and for the most part the graft seems to have taken. Foster spins a world of high-stakes espionage that collapses under the onslaught of an unstoppable supernatural force given to gratuitous evisceration, and the final product, far from feeling artificial or incongruous, is strangely satisfying. Imagine if Jason Bourne went up against Freddy Krueger and you’ve got a close approximation of the tone (minus Krueger’s dark humor—the eponymous Mister White mostly plays it straight).
The novel begins with a man named Abel, an American black-ops agent in Austria who runs afoul of someone called Mister White. It isn’t clear who Mister White is (and this ambiguity is an important recurring theme), but it is clear that he’s bad news and seems to be targeting spies. Abel attempts to flee but is promptly caught. After, a video showing Abel’s torture and death is sent to Lewis Edgar, another agent based in Russia. Lewis, spooked, goes on the lamb and is instantly pursued by the inscrutable and, we quickly realize, demonic Mister White.
Lewis’ flight across Europe is harrowing, with the monstrous Mister White dogging him the entire way and leaving piles of mangled corpses in his wake. Mister White likes his victims to be afraid, which seems to explain why he toys with Lewis rather than killing him outright; and the rapid unhinging of Lewis’ worldview as he comes to grips with the true nature of his pursuer nicely underscores the weirdness of the entire situation.
Meanwhile, on the home front, Lewis’ estranged wife Cat receives a terse email from her husband with a code word indicating that shit has hit the proverbial fan and she needs to get the hell outta Dodge. With their angsty teenage daughter Hedde in tow, Cat flees to the rural New Hampshire cabin of her uncle Gerard, not understanding the nature of their danger but sensing how serious it is. The novel thus splits into two major narrative threads, one focusing on Lewis’ nightmarish trek through northern Europe, the other on his family’s ordeals in wintry New England. The demonic Mister White is able to travel at will wherever his name is invoked, so Lewis isn’t the only one facing supernatural danger. As Lewis closes in on home, the demon closes in on his family, and the tension builds dramatically before the demon’s arrival in a carnival of slaughter, an embarrassment, as it were, of guts.
At times, Foster’s writing verges on the lyrical, belying the extreme violence of the narrative. He reveals the inner workings of his characters without becoming verbose, seldom falling into the trap of explaining, “She felt scared” or “He was angry” (or, if he does, quickly backing it up with more nuanced explorations of emotion). His descriptions of place are effective, setting the mood without belaboring it. Thus:
The hall upstairs seemed built for another time, too thin and too tall for this age. It conjured images of narrow New England schoolmasters and memories of The Crucible, that most terrifying play. The ever-present gray of the sky, the dead, leafless trees with bony branches drooping towards the iron-hard ground, all were of a piece with her taciturn uncle and these too-thin, too-tall hallways.
The quality of prose is, in fact, the novel’s major draw. Foster strikes a perfect balance between the pulpy fun of tense chases, international intrigue and supernatural fear, and the deeper lines of interpersonal relationships, philosophy and belief. His writing is so sharp and finely-tuned, in fact, that it makes it possible to overlook some of the novel’s flaws, such as the odd typo or underdeveloped storyline (a demonic phone booth chief among the latter).
Mister White himself is satisfyingly frightening, an unstoppable demon who can go anywhere and kill anyone, and while the overt violence he inflicts somewhat detracts from the frightfulness of the character—it’s “much too vulgar a display of power,” if you will—Foster’s narration generally makes up for it. I’m generally not at all a fan of hyper violence, graphic beheadings and torture scenes and the like, and these things are Mister White’s bread and butter. (This is actually one of the more incongruous points of the novel. Mister White is apparently a spiritual being: one character shoots him and notes that the bullets hit the wall behind him. But he physically brutalizes his victims. I don’t get it.) It’s often hard to maintain a chilling atmosphere with buckets of blood flying around, but Foster handles it all deftly, explaining without describing in textbook detail, and thus turns what for me might have been a weakness into a strength.
A sticking point is the inevitable final confrontation and closing scenes, which feel tacked-on and derivative (not to mention predictable). Endings are difficult, but the abruptness with which the main storyline ends is jarring. I read the novel on a Kindle and was mildly surprised that I’d reached the end despite the device assuring me I was only 90% finished. (The remaining space was dedicated to ads for other Grey Matter Press titles.)
The ending is enough of a disappointment that I nearly gave it lower marks, but Mister White is just such an entertaining read that I couldn’t justify it. It’s a fun book and you should read it. Incidentally, this is the first novel by publisher Grey Matter press—a strong start to be sure. I really hope there’s a sequel in the works to answer some of those nagging questions, and make me feel a little better about the fate of the characters.
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