THE CURSE OF MESPHISTO'S SEED
By William P. Haynes
Reviewed by Peter Tennant
According to the back cover blurb, Haynes is the author of numerous chapbooks of poetry and has been published in Japan, Europe, and throughout the United States. Subtitled Book One: The Day of the Awakening, this is his first novel and also the first volume in a trilogy.
The opening section is standard Horror genre fare, the story of Elliott, a strange child whose mental gifts far outstrip his physical development. The grown ups in his life are inexplicably scared of the boy and even his mother is forced to confront the knowledge that there is something seriously wrong with her son. In reality Elliott is the child of the Devil, the result of a demonic pact made by his now dead 'father'. The boy starts to go out at night, accompanied in his nocturnal wanderings by a fierce wolf sent by his true father, and those who antagonise him meet nasty ends, a train of events which attracts the attention of local law enforcement. So far, so Omen, or just about any Hollywood shtick about demonic children you care to name.
Next we have a middle section, where the focus switches to Sheriff Josh Riley and his deputy Mark Talbot. Talbot is exposed to an occult fire that leaves him blind, but also gifted with new senses and magic powers, plus memories from a previous life of how to use these. He is to be Elliott's nemesis, joining forces with Josh and rebel preacher Andy to battle the supernatural peril that has been unleashed by Elliott's meddling, culminating in a trip to Hell itself and a three way battle between Mark, Mesphisto and Elliott, who is determined to usurp his father's throne.
Mark believes that he has been victorious, but on returning to our world he finds that over twenty years have passed. An anachronism, with many of the people he cared about dead, Mark realises that once again, to save the woman he loves, he must confront Elliott, who has set himself up as a Fundamentalist preacher. Mark succeeds, but only as a prelude to an unsubtle end note in which, by way of homage to every other naff Horror film that's hit our silver screens since Halloween, the bad guy pops up again to hint at something in the pipeline even more outrageous than before.
Well, it is the first volume of a trilogy.
The book is billed as Horror, but that attribution is somewhat dubious I feel. Haynes' use of genre tropes is mostly clichéd or by way of window dressing, while the scenes of terror that he gives us always seem somehow detached, one step removed from the reality he is trying to convey. Carnage is wreaked, but there is no real sense of suffering with the characters, no cold hand of fear reaching out to grab the reader. The writing does not hurt or disgust as it should for work in this genre; there is no true dimension of terror. My own feeling is that, as the trilogy format suggests, what we really have here is a work more at home in the Fantasy genre, with Mesphisto in place of Sauron and Hell serving as Middle Earth, an essentially flawed attempt to recreate Dante's Inferno in the manner of Raymond Feist.
Flawed, as sadly the author's talents do not do justice to the ambitious task he has set himself.
The most interesting, and original, part of the narrative is the middle section, especially the scenes that take place in Hell itself. It is when describing this sulphurous locale that Haynes is at his best, with a slightly finer command of language and exercise of his poetic sensibility than elsewhere. His undoubted imagination is put to effective use, providing the reader with some images that linger in the mind and a sense of the genuine anguish felt by Hell's inhabitants. At such moments Haynes seems less self conscious and far more engaged with what he is doing, as if the rest of the book, the connecting narrative thread and the parts set in our own world, are more by way of a necessary evil, the structure on which to build this unholy travelogue.
The plot when taken as a whole seems like nothing so much as a contrived succession of pots and frying pans, a series of hoops through which the characters are made to jump with little rhyme or reason at back of it all, given the most banal of motivations for much of what they do and with no real sense that any progress is being made, as demons are defeated on the most specious of grounds, only to come back again in the next chapter as if nothing has happened. The pacing is off, with whole scenes so rushed they go by in a blur and others that are needlessly protracted or not necessary at all, such as a long excursion to another town that Mark and Josh undertake, involving a ludicrously contrived run in with local law enforcement, the sole purpose of which seems to be to provide Josh with a reason to avoid that place at a later date.
Curious choices are made in the language, such as the young girl who 'convoluted so badly' instead of the, surely, more natural 'convulsed' or 'emphatic' healing instead of 'empathic', 'course' when 'coarse' is clearly what's meant and continual confusion over the use of 'past' and 'passed', though perhaps this is simply a sign of poor proofreading.
Elsewhere we see dodgy use of perspective, with scenes that run into each other with no clear break and confusion over exactly who is the viewpoint character. Haynes has a habit of writing a sentence in which a character is named (e.g. Josh, Mark) and then immediately following it with one where 'he' is used, the reader making the natural assumption that this is the named character whereas in fact it is somebody else, so that the reader has to continually adjust for context.
The most irritating and conspicuous of these many glitches though is to do with tense. The book is written mostly in the present tense, though occasionally blundering into a time slip. The big exception is when anything to do with speech occurs, at which point it invariably reverts to the past tense, so that the characters said, cried, shouted, whispered etc, all within a present tense context. This is applied so consistently that it's impossible to regard it as anything other than intentional, but what useful purpose is served by such a grammatical contortion?
There are some good things about this book, such as the descriptive scenes already mentioned, and while characterisation is mostly superficial, conveyed by having people bristle with attitude or lurch into portentous speech, there is the occasional interlude in which the characters seem to come alive, with convincing dialogue and actions (inevitably these are the more upbeat scenes, involving the expression of love or the easy camaraderie of long standing friends, and my suspicion is that Haynes is investing more of himself in such moments). And, in fairness to the author, it needs to be remembered that The Curse of Mesphisto's Seed is the first volume in a trilogy, and so events that seem inexplicable now could prove of vital significance at some future date.
Tempting as it is to dismiss Haynes as a bad writer and simply move on, blame for the bulk of this novel's flaws shouldn't be laid solely at his door.
The book is printed by PublishAmerica and is attractive enough, with a striking cover reproduction of Hieronymus Bosch's The Temptation of St Anthony, but packaging is only a part of the publishing process and recent events, such as the Atlanta Nights fiasco, have illuminated severe weaknesses in PublishAmerica's submissions procedure. The Curse of Mesphisto's Seed, sadly, bears out the criticism voiced elsewhere about the lack of any quality control. Vanity publishers excepted (and PublishAmerica have emphatically rejected that label), I believe publishers have a duty of care: on the one hand an obligation to readers not to flood the market with sub-standard product amid which the truly worthwhile books get lost, and on the other to groom young writers, to motivate them to learn their craft and be the best that they can be, rather than to simply print whatever they submit.
My impression, right or wrong, is that Haynes was let down in this second regard. There's some evidence that he has ability as a writer, but talent in this area, as in every other, needs nurturing and care, particularly in the case of first novels, and perhaps even more so with a project as ambitious as this
The Curse of Mesphisto's Seed needed major surgery. It needed an experienced editor to sit down with the writer and tell him what needed fixing, to explain how grammar works and how to iron out all the kinks and flaws in his narrative so that what the eventual consumer of the book receives is the smoothest and most friendly reading experience possible. I can only hypothesise whether such an exercise would have made the book worthwhile, have better realised whatever potential made somebody feel it was worth publishing in the first place, but certainly it would have been more digestible for the reader.
What it got was a pretty cover. And that was fair on no-one, least of all Haynes himself.
The Curse of Mesphisto's Seed by William P. Haynes. Tpb, 192pp, £12.50/$19.95. Published by PublishAmerica and available in the UK from www.amazon.co.uk