Darren J. Guest’s debut horror novel, Dark Heart, is not quite what one might expect. Instead of telling one of the more violent, macabre horror stories, Guest opts for the more personal tale, one that is more emotionally terrifying than outright horrifying. Leo Stamp may be a disturbed individual, but Guest makes him, to our pleasure, an appealingly disturbed individual. A tale containing a mix of absolution and age-old strife with a slight bit of mystery, Dark Heart is touching book, and a very satisfying debut for Guest.
On Leo’s sixteenth birthday, something bad happened. Something so traumatic his mind fractured, and darkness filled the crack. Twenty years on and the crack is a canyon. The schizophrenic hallucination that once offered sympathy has taken to mocking him, and the memory of that long-ago birthday claws at his darkest fears, overshadowing even the murder of his younger brother Davey. But just when life can’t get any worse... Leo dies.
A demon returns after twenty years.
And angel follows close behind.
Leo is caught in an age-old conflict his past lying at the dark heart of it all.
Honestly, this didn’t have as much horror in it as I was expecting, but this was substituted with a dark, emotional and just as engrossing tale. Leo Stamp is a bizarre man, composed of much sadness and latent trauma, and when we meet him, he appears to be barely able to function in society anymore. Indeed, if his behavior with his best friend at the beginning of the book is anything to go by, Leo can’t be said to be much in control of his life anymore at all. Yet Guest makes it clear that there is definitely a reason why he is like this, and Dark Heart is essentially this explanation as well as, more importantly, the tale of Leo’s redemption - hence the subtitle of the book: The Purgatory of Leo Stamp.
Set in a small, quiet English village, Dark Heart transports you to a very eerie and private place inside of Leo’s world. His disquieting mental and emotional state builds on to this to create a very heavy atmosphere for the novel. This makes everyone of Leo’s emotions better felt by the reader meaning a wholly more personal tale than most. Dark Heart’s value lies less in the sophistication of its intrigue than in the rich characterization of Leo Stamp. Usually I’m more of a ‘balance between plot and characterization’ guy, but the way Guest told his story, I didn’t mind it.
Dark Heart does have it’s issue though, including being is a bit confusing at first. The nature of the mythology of the book (and I’m not really sure mythology is the best word in this case) makes it difficult to understand quite what’s going on at first. Guest, also, doesn’t seem too sure of where he wants to be taking the story, so in the first few pages he leads us in one direction before shifting the trajectory to a different, and final path. Thankfully, this shift occurs relatively early, and so the reading experience is unhindered.
However Guest makes up for this with strong, characteristic prose ideally suited to the type of story he tells. His writing approach allows us to get closer to Leo and engage with him through the difficulties he faces in the book. The very focused viewpoint is essentially a consequence of the limited scope, but it is perfect to give us the most intimate account of this tale as possible. Our restricted vision of things also helps keep us unaware of the true nature of some of the secondary characters, leading to an unexpected, but welcomed, reveal in the final act of the novel.
Dark Heart did not scare me or keep me on edge as much as, say, one of Adam Nevill’s books, but Guest proves himself an adept storyteller capable and Leo Stamp an engaging character. Even when I thought I had this story figured out, it managed to surprise me with one final twist - for that it deserves much congratulations. For a debut writer, Guest makes an excellent first impression - his plotting has its faults but Dark Heart gives no indication that experience with further novels won’t hone Guest into a more than fine horror writer. Let us hope he gets that chance. Dark Heart was published in the UK by Snowbooks in May.
My Rating: 4 out of 5
Reading Age: 16 and up
Darren J. Guest's Website: http://www.darrenjguest.com/
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