Traditionally, the King of Death is often depicted as a skeleton, with scythe, sickle, sword, and hourglass. Other symbols of death include the veil, serpent, lion, scorpion, ashes, and the drummer. Most interestingly, in Hinduism, death is symbolized as a dancer, sometimes a beautiful young woman.
Hollywood long ago picked up the figure of death, breathing life into the concept, which resulted in movies like Death Takes a Holiday and its stylized remake, Meet Joe Black. In the former version, Frederic March played Death, while Brad Pitt undertook the role in the latter movie. Whichever version you prefer, the fact that Death is so downright handsome only serves to increase the irony of the story.
Keith Rommel has adopted the Death-personified-idea in his new novel, The Cursed Man. Only Rommel has injected a few new satirical twists into the story, starting with the setting, an insane asylum. The Sunnyside Capable Care Mental Institution is the home away from home of Alister Kunkle, who believes that Death is in love with him. Not only is Death infatuated with Alister, Death is extremely jealous. Anyone perceived as a competitor for Alister’s time or attention or thoughts is instantly removed – permanently.
So when Doctor Anna Lee arrives at the asylum to “perform an evaluation of both Mr. Kunkle and the hospital,” her time here in this world appears to be very limited. She is as good as dead. Or so it would seem. When Dr. Lee doesn’t die, everyone at the asylum wonders, what is going on? Alister Kunkle begins to wonder if Death has – literally – taken on human form, becoming Dr. Lee.
That’s when the story rockets past the intersection of interesting and accelerates toward the on-ramp of fascinating. The reader is hooked. Who is Dr. Lee? Why isn’t she dead? When will she die? If she is really Death personified, will Alister be able to resist her charms?
The author jumps back and forth between The Past and The Present as the story unfolds. This is a risky way to write a novel, especially a horror novel, which depends upon mounting tension as its fuel, unless the author knows what he is doing. Even then, the author has to pull it off, which means balancing prose against the demands of pacing. Fortunately, Rommel has the requisite talent and tiptoes over the yawning abyss that awaits lesser mortals.
The reviewer only had one quibble: the protagonist’s name. Alister Kunkle? It’s a heavy, clunky name. Let’s face it, in fiction, whether we like it or not, given names are a key factor. Would the man from Mars, in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land, have made the same impression if his name was Horace Gimple? Would Harry Potter have become a household word if J.K. Rowling had named him Taylor Smith? Characters’ names are not just designations. They are so much more. For a character’s name elucidates just a hint of his tantalizing self, i.e., the name becomes an instrument of expression that adds personality to the person wearing the name.
Alister Kunkle sounds like someone’s pet rock.
Other than that, The Cursed Man is a great read. It has all the elements necessary to the horror genre: suspense, action, psychic alarm, and lots of what-the-hell-is-going-on? Keith Rommel is a talent to keep an eye on. He writes good, old-fashioned horror.
On the Read-O-Meter, which ranges from 1 star (really, really bad) to 5 stars (instant classic), The Cursed Man comes in at 4 solid stars. It’s good stuff. Don’t miss it.