Books: The Cursed Among Us by John Durgin

New Hampshire-based author John Durgin is a very new face on the horror scene, having co-founded Livid Comics only two years ago, in 2020, and publishing a Christmas horror comic series called Jol around the same time. According to his bio, he was a huge fan of Stephen King and had long dreamed of becoming a horror writer, an ambition he fulfilled in the summer of 2022 by self-publishing his debut novel, The Cursed Among Us, which I stumbled across while browsing through Kindle Unlimited.

The story is clearly influenced by Stephen King’s IT, Robert R. McCammon’s Boy’s Life, and perhaps a dash of Stranger Things (check out that alternate cover up there), in that it centers around a group of teenagers who are forced to contend with a supernatural force being unleashed in their small town. As the story goes on, they also discover that the adults they all trusted have a few terrible secrets of their own, and might know more about the unfolding events than they’d previously let on.

While this was a fairly solid debut, with a handful of sympathetic characters and an action-packed narrative that hardly let up for a second, I did have some major issues in regards to the pacing and the writing style, particularly the dialogue, which I’ll get more into in a bit.

At the beginning of the novel, it’s 1980, and a man named Henry Black is dragging a woman out into the middle of the woods to bury her where no one will ever find her. Though she’s still alive, Henry has knocked her unconscious and tied her securely so that she can’t escape. He tosses her in the hole he digs, and she wakes up momentarily, but Henry proceeds to hit her with a shovel and then presumably buries her alive. From the general vibe of this opening, we’re led to believe that Henry is a serial killer who has murdered numerous people before this, that the woman he buried was his wife, and that he believed that his wife had been the one telling him to commit his prior atrocities.

We then jump ahead to 1999. The story is set in a town of 6,000 people called Newport, New Hampshire, where nothing much exciting ever happens. People still talk about the murders from twenty years ago, of course, especially because they were even featured on Unsolved Mysteries at one point. Technically, the case was solved—the killer was Henry Black, and he was found guilty and put in jail, where he later died—but there were some odd details about the crime that no one could figure out, like some occult connections and the fact that the killer appeared to have ripped the victims’ hearts right out of their chests with his bare hands, which seemed a rather implausible thing for a human killer to be doing.

So all the adults in town have a really hard and fast rule that none of the kids in Newport should ever set foot in the woods surrounding the town, where most of the killer’s victims were dumped. The five-man police force will even fine anyone caught messing around in there.

But of course, teenagers gonna teen, and our four main protagonists—ninth graders named Howie, Cory, Ryan, and Todd—are in the woods one afternoon, shooting footage for their latest low-budget slasher movie. They didn’t actually mean to wander into the forbidden area of the forest, but they were rushing to finish a couple of scenes before it got dark, and they lost track of where they were.

The boys accidentally stumble across a weird clearing deep in the woods, where they see something that looks like a grave, with all of these black stones with strange symbols on them peppering the top of the mound. One of the boys, Todd, who’s the practical joker of the group, is sort of fucking around with the purported gravesite, but then some spooky shit starts to happen and they think they see someone watching them from the trees, so they hightail it out of there.

The next day, Todd doesn’t show up at school, and Cory reveals that he captured the whole incident in the woods on video, because he forgot to push the stop button in his haste to escape from the forest. What the boys see on the video freaks them right the hell out: it looks like some kind of electrical charge went into Todd’s body, and then his face went all weird and blank. It also looked like the trees were sort of moving behind them as they were running away.

Because Howie had read about the so-called Black Heart Killer murders from 1980, he remembered that those previous crimes also had something to do with black rocks with symbols on them, and he goes to the library to check it out. During the course of his investigation, he discovers an old newspaper clipping of one of the crime scenes that shows his favorite teacher at school—Mr. B, who teaches the film class—in the crowd surrounding the body. Thing is, Mr. B supposedly didn’t move to Newport until recently, so what was he doing in this twenty-year-old picture?

Howie, Cory, and Ryan start to suspect that something really fucked up might be going on, and their fears are confirmed when their friend Todd starts acting very, very strangely. As the story goes on, it becomes ever more obvious that the serial killer case from long ago is far more complicated than outsiders had been led to believe, and that several of the adults in town were privy to what amounts to a supernatural conspiracy.

As I mentioned, this is a pretty decent story; not all that original, but still enjoyable overall. The main characters are all largely relatable, being big horror nerds; especially Howie, whose perspective we most often follow and who has a shitty home life with an abusive dad. The other boys aren’t as well sketched, though we do get to spend a bit of time with Ryan, an overweight kid who has loving, laid-back parents but is relentlessly bullied at school and is seen as needy and clinging by his friends. Todd is less delineated, essentially being “insecure kid who cracks jokes for attention,” and Cory is barely distinguished at all. Mr. B is actually a good character, and we get a few scenes from his point of view as well, which were welcome.

The 90s nostalgia was also strong with this one, and although I was nearly a decade out of high school in 1999, I was still young enough during that era to appreciate many of the references made here.

The book is a fast read, with one action sequence coming fast on the next one, and while this kept the story moving along at a good clip, it also felt too rushed and under-explained in places, and the ending felt slightly abrupt; there was something of an epic battle with the big bad at the end, but it still seemed like it needed more.

I also would have liked to have had more details about the conspiracy angle that the adults in town were in on; maybe some more scenes set back in 1980 would have helped, or perhaps some scenes of the boys figuring out more information about what happened back then would have filled in and fleshed out the history and the lore in a more satisfying way.

I think the book’s biggest flaw for me was the sort of rudimentary writing style, which read as a tad simplistic, almost as though it was geared toward younger readers (which it definitely is not, as it features copious swearing and gore). Of particular note was the very weird dearth of contractions, which made everything read as very stilted. There were some contractions used at relevant points, but a lot of the time, both in the dialogue and in the regular narrative, all the words were spelled out: I am, did not, we are, I will…it was really odd, almost like it was a school writing assignment that had to be a certain number of words and the author was trying to pad it out. It was especially jarring in the dialogue bits, because teenage boys don’t talk that way, not if English is their first language.

There were also some grammatical errors, such as several sentences where necessary commas were left out, and a bunch of misplaced homophones: for example, using gage instead of gauge, vice instead of vise (that happened two times), discrete instead of discreet (that also happened twice), creek instead of creak, peddled instead of pedaled, breaks instead of brakes, and no-nothing instead of know-nothing. Those were just the ones I caught, so this definitely needed another pass-through by an editor.

The story also had a strange habit of introducing a minor character—the janitor at the high school, the stoner guy working at the video store—and then giving them a sort of elaborate backstory for a few paragraphs before they got horribly killed by the monster. I get that a horror story of this type needs monster fodder, and to be fair a lot of slasher movies try to do this kind of thing, suddenly introducing and attempting to humanize a character moments before they get bumped off, but it still came across as a bit forced to read a brief tale of woe about how the town drunk ended up in his pitiable state just prior to him being taken out. These characters did have interesting backstories, and I liked that the overriding message with these vignettes was, “Don’t judge these people you look down on, because you don’t know what their deal is,” but I just wish they had been incorporated more into the plot beforehand, rather than having them just show up and get killed.

On the whole, this had some problems, but the story idea was a good one, and I think with more experience and polish, the author will produce some great stories down the line.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.


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