Horror authors have been trying to spin narratives about the dark side of Halloween for years; to take away the sense of fun and frolic seen in films like Halloweentown and even Tim Burton’s masterpiece, The Nightmare Before Christmas to produce decidedly more frightening fare, and not just Halloween killers like Michael Myers in the Halloween films. Needless to say, few have succeeded. But Benjamin Kane Ethridge has created something that gives all the wannabes and would be authors a run for their money with Black & Orange, without a doubt the most original work of horror fiction I’ve read that ties into a Halloween theme.
All of the crucial story elements—plot, pacing, characterization, description, narrative structure, world-building—work together, fused by a talented author who weaves between the subplots seamlessly and in a way that builds maximum suspense, particularly toward the latter chapters. My synopsis wouldn’t do justice to the events of the novel, which the reader needs to experience for him or herself, but the basic premise is that every year on Halloween, a group of creatures, the Church of Midnight, need to open a doorway to the Old Domain so they can reunite with their other half, the Church of Morning. They need a sacrifice, called the Heart of the Harvest, to do so. Each year, they’ve gotten closer, but this year is going to be their year, or so they believe. Chaplain Cloth is the mysterious leader of this motley brood of pumpkin-headed “children,” and while this may conjure a funny image in your head, the Church folk are definitely not to people you want to mess with.
The antagonists to this dangerous group are a pair of Nomads, Martin and Teresa, who, although they love each other, have suffered setbacks in their past—not to mention Teresa has cancer and it’s only a matter of time for her. The clock is ticking as the Nomads work to prevent the Church from gaining ground and finding the Heart. Except that this year, it isn’t just one—there are four Hearts in all, and they’re in babies.
Although the Nomads have many roadblocks to overcome, the Church isn’t without their own troubles. The most interesting aspect is seeing the dissention playing out among the ranks, with subplots including a Bishop, Cole, who suspects his current flame, Melissa, of having done the nasty with Paul, a young acolyte who is well on his way to becoming a Bishop himself. But instead of turning into a love triangle, the author wisely inserts a relationship subplot for Paul that threatens to undo him, and this time it’s with a woman named the Priestess, who definitely serves her purpose, and Chaplain Cloth’s. Paul in particular has a very interesting story to tell, having to go through something known as the Heralding, which could either destroy him completely or make him insanely powerful, the operative word there being ‘insanely.’
The world-building is what sets this novel apart more than anything else. Ethridge has crafted a unique structure to the Church, which models the Catholic Church with its ranks, which include Archbishop, Bishop, acolyte, etc, but fuses it with the more pagan religious roles, specifically when it comes to the Priestess.
Most of the reader’s questions get answered by the end in a satisfying way and Cloth comes across as a tough adversary to overcome, one of those whose death you pray for since you see him for the first time. Sacrifices are made, battles fought, and the dust eventually settles, then clears, and the reader is left with a fantastically well-written novel, which I find it hard to believe is the author’s first. His Stoker win for Best First Novel of 2010, an honour that he shares with the equally talented Lisa Morton, is definitely well-deserved, and this book should be on your “must-read” list as Rio Youers attests in his blurb.