Ever since Perpetual Motion Machine Publishing released Kristopher Triana’s novel The Ruin Season, people have been telling me I HAVE to read this guy’s work. But as is the way of reviewers in spec fiction these days, there’s seldom time to read anything that isn’t in my review queue, either because someone submitted it to me for consideration or I personally requested it. As such, I’ve become almost snobbishly selective as to what I take on and what I take a pass on. But as much as readers and colleagues have raved about this guy, I’ve been itching to read him for a few years now, so it was a no brainer when Editor Max Booth III asked me if I’d like a copy of Triana’s new horror novella, The Detained.
The story starts out mundanely enough, with Phoebe just arriving at her high school reunion in the hopes not so much to reconnect with her classmates but instead trying to exorcise some old ghosts and hopefully bury a past that has haunted her since graduation. But she arrives to find the cafeteria is set up not for a reunion but for detention, and only four other people are in attendance. In addition to three other classmates, their old PE teacher is there too, arriving under the false belief that he is being honored for his service to the school. From here, it doesn’t take long for Triana to stain the proverbial fan as he begins, not so slowly, to methodically layer horror upon horror on his characters as he builds the macabre mystery around them and they frantically search for clues as to why they have been brought here and, more importantly, why they’re trapped there with no apparent way out.
I’ve seen this book referred to as a sort of The Breakfast Club/Poltergeist mashup and while on the bare surface that’s a fair assessment, when you begin to dig into the heart of the story that comparison falls down quickly. In the first of those movies, there were characters that liked each other and in the second one, the situation was resolved, and the cast lived happily ever after, or whatever they did afterwards. In the detained, nobody really likes the others much and there is much dissension amongst the characters, and “happily ever after” is something you can be certain you won’t find within the pages of this heavily noir flavored ghost story. It’s a tale that wormed it’s creeping, slithering way into my black heart and settled there for a single midnight marathon read, utterly unputdownable and completely unforgettable.
And what makes it so unforgettable is Triana’s blatantly obvious passion and study of the human condition. It reads and feels like he knows his characters so well they could be his siblings or even his former classmates and it’s that intimate knowledge of the people that populate his fictional worlds that really drive the story. He gives a shit about his characters so, subsequently, he makes his reader care too. And that, to me, is the most important aspect of good storytelling. If I get fifteen or twenty pages into a book and I still don’t give a damn about the players, I’m out, as will most readers be. But not to worry. In The Detained, you care about Phoebe right out the gate and you follow her willingly into the bleak and horrifying darkness the author paints his set with. And that’s another thing about his remarkable alacrity with managing the cast of his tale. Kristopher’s not afraid to look into the darkness of the human soul, painting superficially normal, reasonable people in black light and blood as he explores their easily exploited weaknesses, casting a light of amorality over the façade of normalcy they live behind. For as much as you might care and maybe even love Phoebe, you’ll find yourself just as passionately disliking several of the others. And that’s a funny thing when it comes to fiction. Hatred too is a form of caring. If the feelings of abhorrence are as intense as those of adoration, you still want to know what’s going to happen and you’ll still find yourself hanging on to the very last word, whether you’re hoping for salvation or comeuppance.
In addition to the remarkable characterization—which drives the story all by itself—Kristopher Triana demonstrates himself to be a master set builder, placing his characters in a dark, dangerously close and claustrophobic environment and quickly setting them at odds with one another. He’s got an exemplary flair for mood setting via his ominous locale and his ability to control his narrative and paint Technicolor scenes of vibrant, visceral, in-your-brainhole violence. The great Jack Ketchum once said about violence that if you want your reader to really see and feel the violence being done, the thrust of a blade or the splatter of brains on the wall, you must be willing to make yourself as an author see and feel it. You must be willing to not look away. Triana is most definitely not afraid to look at the violence he creates, and he meets it head-on in this blistering tale of pain, suffering and ultimately maybe a small helping of hope. He’s an author of exceptional talent and if you’ve yet to experience his brand of horror, I can’t recommend this book highly enough as a gateway drug to the rest of his work. Because it’s a story that leaves you simultaneously satiated yet oddly unfulfilled, longing for more of this new brand of medicine that should be labeled as a prescription only product.