Joseph Edwin Haeger

Book Review: Crimson King by J.B. Rockwell

Joseph Edwin Haeger reviews Crimson King by J.B. Rockwell. (Bizarro Pulp Press)

 

I don’t get scared reading books. It’s a weird point of pride, but generally, a book is a book and if I’m unsettled all I need to do is close it and walk away. Out of sight, out of mind. There aren’t many lingering thoughts I associate with books pulled off the horror shelf (but I’ll be the first to say, maybe I need to read more horror).

I say this, too, because reading Crimson King by J.B. Rockwell was a different experience. I read it with a fascination at the way the horror unfolded. In the same way Stephen King builds a human foundation before dunking his characters into the supernatural, Rockwell made me care about these characters before terrorizing them with the stud bull next door. I’d close the book and walk away, but I’d still feel the green eyes of the bull staring at me through my window or hear the clomping hoofs in the soft mud outside my house. Crimson King lingered with me, and the fear it evokes must be what horror fans are always chasing, which makes me want to find the next book that causes my heart to pump a little faster.

 

Crimson King lingered with me, and the fear it evokes must be what horror fans are always chasing, which makes me want to find the next book that causes my heart to pump a little faster.

 

Casey is a ten-year-old boy staying with his grandparents for the summer. There are brief references to his parents, and the neighbor quickly labels him a troublemaker, but the details surrounding his stay remain a mystery. I think a lot of authors could have fallen into the trap of trying to over-explain what he’s doing here, but Rockwell keeps it brief and gives us only the information we need.

During Casey’s stay, he goes to help his grandparents’ neighbor fix a fence, damaged by a new bull. This interaction sets off a quietly horrific tale about a young boy doing his best to overcome his fears. Coming in at under a hundred pages, this novella goes quick and there’s not a wasted word. It’s a tight story that you can read in one ravenous sitting (which I suggest you do).

There’s an ominous haze that permeates this entire book. Crimson King is far more interested in creating a mood and atmosphere as opposed to simply trying to gross us out and, really, there’s nothing too gory or outright violent here. It’s not going for shock, instead opting to build a connection so we immediately care about what happens to Casey. I had a deeper, emotional tie to this character, so, at the end, I was far more unsettled than I would have been if I read something akin to Hostel or Halloween.

 


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There are times when Casey feels way younger than he is (like when he resorts to playing with old dinosaur toys in his room), and then there are other times when he feels way older than he is (like when he’s directing the ambulance drivers where to go in the pasture). There was a moment when I thought this was a hole in the narrative, but then I remembered Rockwell made a point to address this very thing early in the book. Casey is the age where he’s almost a teenager, which practically makes him an almost-adult, but he’s still a kid in no uncertain terms.

Ten is a strange in-between age when you want all the adults to take you seriously and trust in your abilities, but outside of wanting that, there’s not a whole lot you’ve done to earn that trust. Rockwell does a fantastic job of continuously juxtaposing this fantasy with the reality inside Casey’s life, grounding this horrifying tale in his internal conflict, which gives Crimson King enough space to crawl under our skin.

Crimson King is an incredibly effective horror novella, and I can’t wait to start pushing it on all my friends. It’s short enough that I can start re-reading it, all in an attempt to figure out exactly how J.B. Rockwell wrote such a masterfully executed horror story. It’s scary, gets under your skin, and asks enough questions to keep it lingering for days after you’ve finished the last page.

 

Crimson King by J.B. Rockwell is now available in both paperback and e-Book formats here.

 

Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim, a memoir published by University of Hell Press.

 

Joseph Edwin Haeger

Joseph Edwin Haeger is the author of Learn to Swim (University of Hell Press, 2015). His writing has appeared in The Pacific NW Inlander, RiverLit, Hippocampus Magazine, and others. He lives in Spokane, Washington with his wife and son.

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