Patrick Whalen, Monastery (Pocket, 1988)
[originally posted 4Feb2002]
I knew five pages into Monastery that I wasn’t going to like it. But still, I kept reading as per the fifty-page rule; if a book just plain sucks, you give it fifty pages anyway, because it may pick up (and it gives you enough of a basis to write a scathing review, which is usually worth the time you put in). In this case, it DID pick up, and Monastery ends up being a compulsively readable little treatise. But the good parts end up underlining the bad more than canceling them out and showing how good a book this could have been. With a few more rewrites and a harsher editor, Patrick Whalen’s name might well be sitting with King’s, Koontz’, and Barker’s atop the pile of horror writers who can sell a million books by rewriting Mary Had a Little Lamb and including an axe murderer. That, however, did not happen, and Whalen sank into obscurity.
Monastery is the story of two basically unkillable folks, a hit man named Braille and an Ancient named Gregory. Gregory and his pal are vampires of an indeterminate age who were trapped by the Catholic church a hundred years before and imprisoned in the basement of a monastery (thus the book’s title). A team of sociologists from a local college buys the monastery after the not-mysterious-at-all death of its caretakers and, as sociologists will, set about going out to the secluded island where the monastery resides and opening it up. Whoops. Braille, returning home to the island after a job, finds himself walking into something of a nightmare of vampires running around killing the townspeople, etc. Here’s where the book diverges from other horror novels. Braille isn’t your usual horror novel hero. No freezing in terror, no high-pitched shrieking, just a quick inventory of weapons and trying various ones out to figure out what’s going to kill the vampires as quickly and easily as possible. This is the horror novel hero that horror novel fans have been waiting for for decades. Braille and Gregory, opposite sides of the same coin, are more like something out of a good martial arts film (or, actually, what came to mind immediately for me was Pacino and De Niro in Michael Mann’s film Heat); the two grow to respect each other, almost becoming friends, while still realizing that one of them cannot survive. The question them becomes, what happens when the immovable post meets the irresistible object? And those are always the best horror novels, in my estimation.
Given such a great premise and such wonderful characters, why does Monastery not measure up? A lot of it has to do with the writing itself, unfortunately. Whalen is a little too transparent in where he’s going at times, especially with character names (when you have a TV preacher named Chapel, you realize by page 20 one of the major twists in the final battle. After all, your hero is named… Braille). And after you meet the sociological team and see the inevitable end they come to, you’ve got the template for Whalen’s minor characters. Every horror novel needs minor characters who are set up just to be killed, and even a few major ones, but ever since Stephen King pulled his “he’s NOT going to kill HER!” twist in ‘Salem’s Lot in 1974, every horror writer has aspired to follow suit: set up your minor characters as if they’re going to become major characters. Make them more than cardboard cutouts. Most importantly, don’t let the reader know they’re going to die until they do (preferably in as inventive, spectacular, and grimly humorous a way as possible). Whalen handles the first two parts of the rule with considerable aplomb, but fails miserably at the third. And it’s all the more painful because of the way he handles the deaths of various characters (impossible to show specifics without getting into plot spoilers, but one of the characters in the book you really, really want to die does, and his death could be—should be—a template for future horror writers to work from, specifically because it deviates from part three. Handled just a little better, it would have been one of the notable passages in horror writing in the past half century).
And so I’m stuck figuring out how to rate this novel. I’d unhesitatingly recommend it to readers of horror fiction, because there’s a lot of good here, and there was potential for greatness. That recommendation, however, comes with the caveat that you can expect to be disappointed overall. As someone said in a movie I recently saw, “when it’s good, it ain’t bad, and when it’s bad, it ain’t good.” ** ½