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Book Review: Supernatural: The Unholy Cause by Joe Schreiber

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Supernatural doesn't have a hope in hell of succeeding. That is what some people probably thought when the show debuted on the now defunct WB network back in 2005. Yet, what at first looked like an X-Files clone, sans sci-fi, has been a surprising success. The combination of endearing leads, good production values and a compelling mythology have earned it a broad audience and generally positive criticism.

I regret that despite these qualities I have been unable to keep up with Supernatural during the five seasons that have aired so far. Hence, I was pleased to be reminded of it when Titan Books sent me a copy of the second in its series of novels based on the show, Supernatural: The Unholy Cause. The book, which was published earlier this month, is a "previously unseen adventure for the Winchester brothers" that happens sometime after the start of the series' fourth season. Written by horror novelist Joe Schreiber, it reads like an extended episode of the show but with more scope than a TV budget allows.

The Unholy Cause
begins with a brutal murder and a gruesome suicide during a historic battle in the American Civil War. Or so it seems. A macabre twist reveals that things are aren't what they appear and sets the stage for the rest of the story.

In classic Supernatural fashion, the show's heroes, demon hunters Sam and Dean Winchester, are introduced on their way to investigate a possibly paranormal event. Here Schreiber introduces a humorous streak that runs throughout the book and helps to make his Sam and Dean convincing recreations of the characters in the TV show. They arrive at the site of the incident posing as FBI agents named Townes and Van Zandt. For anyone who doesn't get the joke, Townes Van Zandt was a Texas-born musician and is one of numerous musical references in this book.

The Winchesters find that they have been beaten to the punch by another demon hunter. By way of compensation, though, he directs them to Mission Hill, Georgia. Strange events have happened there at the site of the Civil War battle in the book's opening passage.

The story takes some time to get going after Sam and Dean arrive in Mission Hill. The town sheriff has a gruesome mystery to solve that is connected to a Civil War reenactment happening outside the town. She isn't impressed when two oddly named FBI agents turn up and start asking lots of questions. When "Townes" and "Van Zandt" meet the angel Castiel (introduced in Supernatural's fourth season) they find out that the significance of the battle being recreated at Mission Hill is more than historical.

Castiel is in Mission Hill looking for an infamous figure from Christian writings who can lead him to an object that is behind the paranormal events in the town. He is not the only one. Demons start possessing the locals and it becomes apparent about a third of the way through the book that things are going to get bloody.

As the body count rises the story picks up pace and becomes a compelling read. Perhaps because I haven't seen much of the series, I did find myself getting lost in the lore underpinning events. The deceits in the plot also left me confused by exactly how that famous historical figure fit into the story. Once I decided to roll with these uncertainties, though, I was able to enjoy the action-packed last two-thirds of the story without getting too distracted.

The Supernatural television series has successfully trodden a fine line between horrifying its audience and maintaining mainstream appeal. The Unholy Cause does the same thing, although it might be too action oriented for avid fans of psychological horror. The early parts of the book have their creepy moments, but later events lean more towards spectacle (albeit with a supernatural twist) than scares. There is not much here that will frighten or disgust anyone other than small children (although those black-eyed demons did give me the heebie-geebies). Even so, it was exciting enough to keep me coming back.

As with most movie and TV tie-in novels, Supernatural: The Unholy Cause is not a challenging read. If you are a fan of the show, this novel should help satiate your desire for new adventures as you wait for the start of Season 6. If you are someone who wants to get a sense of what Supernatural is about, it will give you a good introduction. Recognise, though, that it does drop you in the middle of the series' mythology. Before reading it, you might be wise to follow my example and do some catching up on Wikipedia.

The author, Joe Schreiber, has written several horror novels including Eat the Dark, Chasing the Dead (which received a starred review in Publisher’s Weekly) and the forthcoming No Doors, No Windows. He also has an upcoming Star Wars tie-in novel, Death Troopers, that will be published in hardcover in October 2009.

Titan Books' other published Supernatural novel is titled Heart of the Dragon and was written by Keith R. A. DeCandido. Other Supernatural titles by the same publisher include The Official Supernatural Magazine and Official Companions for Season's One to Four of the CW show. The last of those is due on bookshelves in August. A third novel, War of the Sons, is also forthcoming.

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About Michael Simpson