Paradise, Maine by Jackson B. Thomas (2020 Splatterpunk Awards)

paradisemaine_jacksonrthomasDarren and Vanis Caswell are a young couple, but already their marriage has been disrupted. Vanis has caught her husband spending time with an Internet camgirl, although her anger at him lessens when he is injured in an accident. The couple agree that a visit to a cabin retreat in the coastal Maine town of Paradise will give them a chance to begin patching up their relationship.

But Paradise is not as idyllic as it purports to be. The town is home to the Watcher, a deformed cannibal who lurks nearby, eager to dig his axe into those who get too close to his domain…

It scarcely needs mentioning that Paradise, Maine evokes memories of 1980s slasher films. The central villain of the Watcher would have fit right in alongside Jason and Leatherface: a misshapen face with one eye higher than the other, a loincloth torn from the clothes of some unfortunate passer-by, and enough cunning for him to catch each victim unawares.

However, author Jackson R. Thomas recognises that the standard formula of 80s slashers – send a group of stereotyped twenty-year-olds into an enclosed space with a killer – is too simplistic to sustain a novel, or even a reasonably-sized novella like Paradise, Maine. Such a book will need proper characters, not just college clichés, and so Jackson makes an effort to get under the skins of his cast.

The full scale of Vanis and Darren’s romantic strife gradually becomes apparent over the course of the novel. Every few chapters a new aspect of their relationship is introduced with a braod but persuasive stroke: Vanis’ infertility; Darren’s frustrated desire for a son; Vanis’ dislike of Darren’s deceased mother; Darren’s lingering resentment of that antipathy. The two become thematic opponents to the Watcher: the childless couple versus the monstrous child.

Paradise’s residents represent all walks of smalltown life, from the local sheriff Hunter Chamberlain and his influential brother Robert down to the everyday folks who just happen to share their neighbourhood with an axe-murderer. The people of Paradise are all too aware of the Watcher and his slayings: some, like shopkeeper Dahlia Denson, have seen him in person; others know him more as a local legend. But for their own reasons, the sheriff and his brother have decided to let the Watcher run amok, even paying residents to keep word from reaching the outside world. In contrast to the lone killer typical of slashers, Paradise, Maine depicts a community with multiple levels of complicity in the killings.

A notable side effect of this plot detail is that few of the characters are sympathetic. Even nominal protagonists Darren and Vanis show few likeable traits: the husband has a distinctively selfish streak, and the wife – although not necessary dislikeable – is seen in large part from Darren’s perspective, hampering the reader from truly getting to know her. Only Mary, a small child, is innocent enough to embody the potential for Paradise to be redeemed.

But then, it is hardly uncommon for slasher narratives to lack likeable characters. After all, most of the cast will exist primarily to be brutally murdered before the story’s end. Once the dark secrets of Paradise are exposed, there is a distinct satisfaction to seeing the dominos falling one by one — and during the climax, the Watcher is far from the only person resorting to homicide.

As is often the case with small-press publications, Paradise, Maine is rough-edged and would have benefitted from another round of editing: the biggest gaffe is that Sheriff Chamberland’s surname changes to Chamberlain for a stretch of the novella, before reverting again. To get the most out of the novella, read it quickly, so that little niggles like this will be swept away by the action and intrigue. That way, Paradise, Maine should make a gripping ride for any fan of vintage slashers.

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