Richard Laymon is a horror writer of some repute and one whose name I keep encountering on a regular basis while browsing the relevant sections of the web. Hence, when I saw his novel The Stake in my local charity shop I couldn’t resist buying it. The premise is deceptively simple. Larry Dunbar, his wife and friends go adventuring in a hotel located in a Californian ghost town. There they discover a dead body of a naked female in a coffin hidden under some stairs. The body in question has a stake in it, raising questions as to whether or not the girl was in fact a vampire. Larry becomes increasingly obsessed with the body and the stake and begins to see the girl in his dreams, urging him to undo the stake. Meanwhile in his waking life he vows to uncover the mystery behind the girl in the coffin and catch the person who murdered her.
The Stake is a very unusual horror novel in that for most the novel the horror remains low key. The stake in the girl’s body remains intact for most of the novel, with the climax building up to its removal. The main conflict steams from Larry’s investigations into the girl with the stake in her heart, whom he learns is called Bonnie. The supernatural elements are handled in a very ambiguous manner for most the novel, with everything possibly having a natural explanation. The dreams that Larry has are partially attributed to stress and are simply the reflections of his growing obsession with Bonnie. Likewise it the novel is reluctant to answer whether or not Vampires are real until a scene at the very end, with the resident vampire hunter being portrayed as delusional and psychotic. Said vampire hunter is one of the main antagonists of the novel as opposed to Bonnie, a twist I found rather enjoyable. In the end it turns out that Bonnie is indeed a vampire but does not awaken until the last scene.
In some respects the story felt a bit Scooby Doo like since I thought the story was going to build up to a reveal that Bonnie was just an innocent victim of a delusional man who believes he is hunting vampires. In some respects she still is even after the reveal since it is revealed that the hunter was after the wrong vampire but the point is that I thought it was just a murder mystery with a bit of horror dressing. Larry and his friends seemed to form a Scooby Doo like gang at the beginning as well which seemed to reinforce this belief. While it is a great deal more mature, with a lot of strong themes, I couldn’t help but draw parallels with the show. So much so that when Bonnie turned out to be a real vampire it came as a genuine shock to me.
Character wise the story is really about two people, Larry and his daughter Lane. Larry is an author, one of the most tried and tested clichés I’ve come to see in modern horror because apparently a lot of authors have difficulty writing protagonists who aren’t based off themselves. As a character though he was still interesting, with his growing obsession with Bonnie giving us a good glimpse into his flawed psyche. Lane meanwhile is just a stereotypical teenage brat with a bit of a rebellious streak. She becomes sexually involved with Kramer, her teacher who is secretly a manipulative sexual predator who targets girls in his class. This subplot is kind of disturbing and to be honest I found it quite unnecessary since it doesn’t have any relevance to the main plot until near the end, but even then the plot lines don’t intersect in a satisfactory fashion. Kramer in my opinion was just another random antagonist introduced for the sake of giving Lane her own subplot, when in reality Lane should have been integrated into the main plot more. I was half expecting Kramer to have some relevance to mystery of Bonnie in some way so I was disappointed that all he seemed to be was a random killer.
Overall the novel was well done but I couldn’t help but feel that Lane’s subplot dragged it down, in part because it seemed so irrelevant that the novel could easily have functioned without it. I thoroughly enjoyed the various twists and turns in the plot and the psychological horror like tone it seemed to operate under. This was one of the rare novels where the classical horror elements actually came about as a twist and fuelled the tension, even though Bonnie is not the main threat and is dead for most of the novel. Despite its flaws I enjoyed and a breath of fresh air when compared to other works in the horror genre I’ve read recently. This is probably one of the better horror novels I’ve read in recent years, and with good reason.
IN A WORD: CLEVER