Russell C. O’Connor is yet another author who has published numerous horror novels in the past several years, and has served as president of the DFW Writers’ Workshop in his hometown of Fort Worth, Texas, but who had somehow slipped beneath my radar. Browsing through the recommended offerings on Kindle Unlimited, I decided to rectify this oversight with an intriguing-sounding novel called The Jackal Man, originally published in 2009 (though the edition I read was published in 2016).
The story, as you might have guessed, is a monster tale, and if you’re a fan of fast-paced, action-packed horror with a high body count and a cool, legend-in-a-small-town vibe, then you’ve definitely come to the right book.
The novel begins with a brief prologue, told in true urban legend style, of two boys out for a drive who are out past their curfew and decide to take a shortcut back home. Said shortcut involves traveling down a two-lane road known only as the Dark Road, which most of the townsfolk avoid at night because they’re afraid of a local legend called the Jackal Man. Despite the name, the creature is supposedly more cat-like than jackal-like; according to the handful of people who claim to have seen it, the thing appears something like a large cheetah or panther that can walk on two legs and has glowing green eyes. At least one of the boys doesn’t believe in the Jackal Man, but as it turns out, that doesn’t matter one bit, because the monster absolutely attacks their car and leaves both boys for dead.
We then jump ahead some indeterminate amount of time to the main part of the story, which involves our protagonists, the Stanford family. Dad Frank, who is largely the main character, is a somewhat abrasive fellow who’s been working as a foreman on a mall construction project in Fort Worth that’s way behind schedule. He gets a visit from the owner of the company, a real piece of entitled-rich-boy shit named Lyles, and though Frank thinks he’s going to be fired, Lyles instead offers him a tempting proposition: the company is building a housing development in a small town called Asheville, and the former foreman got fired. If Frank can get all the houses completed by the end of the summer, he’ll get a big bonus. Lyles even tells Frank that the company has rented a house for him and his family to stay in while he’s on the job.
The offer sounds too good to be true, but Frank jumps on it almost immediately. He could use the extra money, since his wife Trisha has been out of work, and he hopes that a change of scenery might smooth out some of the rifts in their family. Some of these rifts have to do with the souring relationship between Frank and Trisha, but there’s also the problem of their thirteen-year-old son Willie, who has started dressing like a mall goth and acting up so much that he’s gotten expelled from school. The family also includes a young daughter named Casey, but she doesn’t factor into the story too much.
So the Stanfords make the drive to Asheville, which is a pretty small, rednecky sort of place about three hours from Fort Worth. The house the company rented for them is much nicer than they had expected, although they find it a little weird that the former foreman, who was also living there before he got fired, left behind most of his clothes and left food in the fridge which has all gone bad. It’s a minor wrinkle, though, and the family make the best of it.
Not long afterwards, though, Frank begins to grasp the massive scale of the clusterfuck he has undertaken. He discovers that the ground on which the housing development is being built is hard, unyielding clay, necessitating copious applications of dynamite; this means that it’s very unlikely that all the houses will be finished by the time he promised. Not only that, but he’s finding it really difficult to scare up a local crew willing to work at the site, since the area happens to be right along the Dark Road, which according to the townsfolk is smack dab in the middle of the Jackal Man’s territory. He manages to obtain a crew of mostly migrant workers, but even they get spooked after a horrific incident involving a guard dog only a couple of days after Frank arrives at the site.
There’s also the overt hostility of the townspeople, all of whom genuinely believe in the Jackal Man and don’t want outsiders coming in and riling him up. And as if that wasn’t enough bullshit to deal with, Frank also finds out shortly after arriving in town that Lyles actually doesn’t really give a shit if the housing development is ever finished, and just installed Frank out there so he’d have someone else to blame when the project went sideways.
Frank sort of befriends one of the only welcoming locals, an Asheville detective named Shruff, though the two are somewhat at odds because Shruff absolutely believes the Jackal Man is real and is obsessed with proving it, while Frank thinks the whole thing is just a ridiculous urban legend that’s making his job way harder than it needs to be. Frank also meets a bizarre, slightly sinister hunter named Deegan who shows up mysteriously in town, claiming he will kill the Jackal Man at no cost, just for the glory of defeating it.
After that, it’s an escalating series of bloody and violent incidents, as people disappear and turn up eviscerated. It all seems to be centering around the construction site, and though at first Frank is convinced that the monster isn’t real and that someone very human is pulling the strings for some unknown motive, as the story goes on and his friends and family end up endangered, he begins to question that assumption, and soon finds himself face to face with something as extraordinary as it is deadly.
This is definitely a book for readers who like action horror centered around a legendary creature that turns out to be real. It’s relentlessly paced and gorily entertaining, and I read almost the whole thing in a single sitting, even though it’s fairly long. If I had any criticisms, they would be that Frank is kind of an asshole, so if you have to have a likeable main protagonist, you might be in trouble. I also wish a little more had been done with Deegan’s back story, because I really wanted to know what the fuck was up with that guy. There were also several spelling and grammatical errors, but I see that in most books nowadays (where my editors at?), so I can’t complain too much. Overall, this was a fun, breathless read with lots of monster action and a bunch of savage kills, so if that sounds like your bag, then give it a look.
Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.