Rick Hautala, Winter Wake (Warner, 1989)
[originally posted 24Jan2002]
During the eighties, Rick Hautala was touted by the in-crowd as the next Big Thing in horror fiction; Fangoria even predicted Hautala would be the next Stephen King. But Hautala’s meteoric descent into obscurity as the decade turned could be predicted by anyone who knows the unwritten (until now) rule of horror fiction blurbs: the more obscure the previously-famous blurb writer for an author, the more likely it is that the blurbed will make the same descent. And the blurb for Winter Wake comes from John Coyne, second only to Frank de Felitta in seventies horror, and just as obscure by the time Winter Wake appeared in 1989.
The rule of horror fiction blurbs wasn’t necessarily the only way to prophesy Hautala’s downfall. Winter Wake suffers from the traps of many genre horror novels, specifically overdramatized writing and about ten times the number of necessary exclamation points. Neither of these things prevents an author from attracting a core audience and achieving longstanding fame, however, as the example of Brian Lumley shows us. And what beyond that may have erased Hautala’s name from the bestseller list is something of a mystery. Winter Wake is not a bad book by any means, despite the shortcomings mentioned above. It’s not a great one, either, but no one lined up to give the Pulitzer to Dean Koontz for Darkness Falls, either.
The story presents us with the Carlson family: father Frank, son John, son’s wife Julia, and son’s stepdaughter Bri. Frank has recently suffered a stroke, and his rehab is taking longer than usual, so John and his family move back to the homestead on a small Maine island to help Frank around the house. Frank and John have never gotten along too well, though, and while Julia and Bri start feeling affection for the old guy almost immediately, things just get worse and worse between father and son. To throw an extra monkey wrench into the works, the house seems to be haunted, and the haunting seems to point to a dark secret in John’s past.
The encapsulation above seems to point to Russell Banks’ Affliction, doesn’t it? Frank Carlson is a lot more affable, and John Carlson isn’t quite as dysfunctional, but there’s something to be said for the comparison. A family disintegrating over the gradual uncovering of a secret. Hautala, though, doesn’t have the deftness of foreshadowing that Banks uses throughout his work; often, there might as well be THIS IS IMPORTANT in foot-high neon red over certain passages in Winter Wake. And while the actual dark secret is somewhat different than what one would expect, Hautala chose to channel the dark secret into an avenue where the logical choices the reader could guess are limited enough that the revelations at the end are still somewhat predictable. The book also suffers from the same unaccountable mood swings that seem to pervade just about every piece of fiction I’ve been reading recently. John and Julia go from yelling at one another to laughing to sullen silences in the space of a few minutes without any real triggers that we can see. It makes things simple and moves the plot along, but there’s a strong feeling of attempted emotional manipulation, and it’s just a little too close to the surface. When you can see it, it doesn’t work.
Whether Hautala deserves the obscurity in which he finds himself these days is an arguable point; lord knows hundreds of best-selling authors have the same, or far worse, flaws in their various stories than these. The problem is there’s not enough here to really start any kind of revival movement. ** ½