Having already been a fan of Caleb J. Ross from his short story collection, Charactered Pieces, it was nice to see him make a big leap with his first novel, Stranger Will. In fact, he jumped himself right into Ira Levin territory with this macabre tale of evil that lives right next door (if not right inside the protagonist). It’s been a while since I have read a solid, eerie tale of actual human depravity — let’s face it, most writers are too zombie and vampire obsessed these days — but Stranger Will hits the mark perfectly. As Levin did with Rosemary’s Baby and The Stepford Wives, Ross sets Stranger Will in a our world, one too familiar, where a slight twist, a nudge in the wrong direction send’s the protagonist Will into the presence of secret movement that exists just beneath the surface. Their plans… well, without giving anything away, are as nefarious as the old folks in Levin’s satanic opus.
In terms of mood, Ross hits it perfectly. There is a dark grime to the story, similar to the fluids that Will cleans up as part of his job as a crime-scene janitor. The author is daring enough to never let the slack off the line, dragging us further and further into the bleak plot. As you read, you come away with the impression that the sun never shines in Will’s hometown of Brackenwood. Picture rain soaked pictures such as David Fincher’s Se7en and you get the atmosphere. If I seem light on plot details, it’s because I don’t want to give away the main hook, the nefarious deeds Will suddenly finds himself involved in courtesy of one Mrs. Rose, an elementary school principal with a tight grip on Brackenwood. But it involves a bit of “correcting” by strangers in the guise of homeless men. The plot, is taught, well-crafted, and 2/3 of the way in hits you with the right-hook to the head where you suddenly realize everything that came before was just a warm-up for the real action. And Ross, never winks, never let’s down his guard — very important for this kind of tale. He could have tried to temper the darkness with humor, but that would’ve undercut the atmosphere. As written, there is no letup for the reader.
If I had one wish for the book, it would be that in parts the author didn’t overwrite. Ross is a good writer, he doesn’t need to oversell the story or the mood. Certain parts, in dialogue or description, felt as if the author really wanted us to respect his writing (which we already do) rather than serving the story as they should. The only blackmark I could level against the book goes to the publisher who didn’t serve their author well by doing a crap job on the copyediting. Too many damn typos that after a while do start to distract from the story. To their credit however, they did a great job on the cover.
Regardless, Ross has outdone himself on this one. So much so, I think the next book will be another bar raiser for him. And I hope it is a dark, sinister, and eerie tale to top Stranger Will. Ross writes the macabre better than most.