Saturday, June 15, 2013

Great 'Forgotten' Thrillers: KEEPER OF THE CHILDREN by William H. Hallahan

So for the third in this series of blog posts, we're sticking with the seventies again (as we will do for many of the posts to come) for another tight little thriller that manages to come in at just under 200 pages. Except, as you might guess from the cover, this one's not your usual crime thriller. If we're going to go the label route I'd have to say 'Keeper of the Children' is more your 'Horror/Suspense' hybrid, which is partly the reason I like it so much.

It starts out simply enough. Eddie Benson, a successful TV ad producer, returns home to Philadelphia after a long shoot to find his wife and son at the airport, but no daughter. He soon learns that fourteen-year-old Renni has run away with her best friend to join a cult of beggars under the control of a Tibetan Buddhist monk named Kheim. Quite why Eddie's wife waits until he gets back to give him this information is never adequately explained, but anyway, Eddie soon sees Renni out on the streets with her two dozen similarly-aged cohorts, all of whom wear orange robes and beg for money all day before heading off to the 'temple' where they all bed down, ready to do the exact same thing the next day.

As it turns out, the police are powerless to act since Kheim isn't actually doing anything illegal. The kids under his roof aren't being abused, they're fed well, clothed in clean robes, and the 'temple' itself is kept spotlessly clean on a daily basis. And when Eddie talks to a group of angry parents in the same position, he discovers that simply 'kidnapping' your kid doesn't work either, as he or she is apparently brainwashed into running back to the temple at the earliest opportunity. He also learns the leaders of this group are planning to deliver documents to Washington proving that Kheim is in the country illegally so they can have him deported. Unfortunately for Eddie, before the evidence can actually be delivered, the group's ringleaders soon begin dying in very odd ways.

And when I say odd, I do mean odd. For instance, one gets beaten to death by a scarecrow, another gets torn apart by a group of street cats (see cover), while a third has a fatal run-in with a clothing dummy and a golf club. Naturally, it soon becomes all fairly clear to Eddie - and the reader - that Kheim's able to astral-project something fierce (this is the seventies, after all) with the ability to place his consciousness inside a variety of inanimate objects and small animals at will. And Eddie, as the last man standing, is his next intended victim.

But our Eddie's a resourceful fellow and he quickly figures out that if he's going to get out of this in one piece and get his daughter back he's going to have to fight fire with fire. To that end, he visits a yogi named Nullatumbi, who helps him train his mind in order to do battle with Kleim on the astral plane...

I'm not sure how old I was when I first read this book, possibly fourteen or fifteen. I was reading a lot of horror back in those days, but then so were a lot of people. Stephen King and James Herbert had a lot to with that, I'm sure. But I think it was probably the blurb on the back cover that did it for me:

'Alone in a child's bedroom... Eddie Benson listens for footsteps on the stairs. The footfall Eddie is waiting for will not be human. It could be someone's pet cat, or a stuffed teddy bear, or even a smiling marionette doll. But whatever it is, it will have two horrifying qualities: it will be propelled by a diabolical force and it will have only one intention - murder.'

Now honestly, how could I not buy this book? Especially as I'm fairly sure I once had a nightmare exactly like that, where some unnamed axe-wielding creature was climbing up the stairs to chop me up into small pieces. Or maybe I dreamt it after reading the book, I don't know. All I can say is the book delivered on its promise of offbeat thrills and spills, and that was perfectly fine with me. Especially at that age. I should add that I've reread it a number of times since and while I notice the novel's faults more now, I still enjoy it as much now as I did back then.

Because there is a lot to like about this book. It helps that Hallaran's a fine writer who's able to give his characters interesting and natural-sounding dialogue. He doesn't allow his prose to get in the way of the story either, and his matter-of-fact recounting of the more fanciful aspects of the plot help make the absurd seem all too plausible. He also does a nice job of foreshadowing right from the start. For instance, we get a sense of otherwordly dread within the very first pages when we sample Renni's slightly ominous marionette dolls (one of whom will play a central role later), and we also briefly meet one of the many stray cats we'll see throughout the book.

It also helps that the hero of the piece, Eddie Benson, is an appealing lead. Although it's only a short book, Hallahan does a pretty decent job of filling in the man's character so the reader can fully identify with his predicament - which is essential when you're dealing with a plot as bizarre as this one is. I only wish Hallahan had given the villain of the piece the same level of attention, because as it stands Kheim is a one-note character straight out of central casting. Not only that, but we never get his POV at any point, so we don't actually know what motivates him to do what he does. He's simply EVIL and that's that. Nevertheless, his malevolent presence does permeate the whole novel from beginning to end, so who knows? Maybe Hallahan knew what he was doing by leaving him a blank slate.

Hallahan also paces the book well, so that we're approximately at the halfway mark when Eddie decides it's time to get proactive and take the battle to Kheim. This is the most enjoyable part of the book for me, as with the help of an elderly Indian yogi, Nullatumbi (another one straight out of central casting - the wise and good mystic), Eddie spends fifty pages learning how to master his mind in preparation for the battle to come. On the one hand, the whole idea's totally ridiculous. Of course it is. Even if astral projection were possible it would take - as Nullatumbi actually makes clear at one point - a dozen lifetimes of study to master, yet Eddie manages to get the hang of it in about two weeks - which is pretty good going for a newbie. And a Westerner, no less. Yet you find yourself simply going along with the whole concept since it's being told with such verve and enthusiasm.

Another point in the book's favour is Hallahan knows how to write action. And not the straightforward stuff either. Without giving away too much of the plot, there's a fantastic scene midway into the book where a stuffed bear does battle with a small stuffed mouse and basically lays waste to a house in the process. They even used the scene for the cover of the US paperback edition (check out my Facebook page for a sample - you can access it from the home page of my website). Later on, there's an even better sequence where a female street cat has a no-holds-barred scrap with an alpha male tomcat - all told from the cats' points of view. It's really great stuff. At the time these were scenes that felt totally new to me and to be quite honest, they still feel that way today. One thing's for sure - Hallahan could never be accused of going the predictable route.

So what's the downside? Well, the book could possibly have been improved by being longer, perhaps allowing the supporting cast to be fleshed out a little more. Although I have to admit the rapid pace of the story would have clearly suffered as a result. Swings and roundabouts. And I've read the book a number of times and I still can't figure out what Kheim's getting out of this. Okay, so two dozen begging kids probably rake in a fair amount of change on a daily basis, but that's all it is. Small change. Kheim's clearly a bright individual, so couldn't he have aimed a little higher than living off the proceeds of panhandling? And while I'm at it, some of the parents don't seem to be nearly as worried about their offspring's welfare as I'd imagine a parent would be today, which is a little puzzling. Or maybe that's simply the seventies for you.

But these are all minor quibbles, really. No book's perfect (except maybe 'The Maltese Falcon'), and we can all pick holes. But let's face it, this is not a book you should be taking too seriously anyway. It's just a fun occult thriller that'll keep you glued to the pages, and really, what more can you ask than that?

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