Michael Paine, Owl Light (Charter, 1989)
[originally posted 22Nov2002]
As the eighties wound down, so did America’s fascination with horror novels not written by people who sell millions of books on the day of their release. Even the most promising eighties horror authors who weren’t publishing hardback originals lost their big book deals and had to go to smaller presses, if they continued writing at all. Needless to say, a number who had been signed at the height of the fad deserved to fade into obscurity, but a smaller number did not; number in the “where are they now, and why aren’t they at the top of the publishing heap?” file such luminaries as John R. Holt (When We Dead Awaken, one of the best horror novels of the late eighties), Joe Lansdale (who saw the shift in the tide and started writing straight mysteries), and Michael Paine, whose second novel, Owl Light, is a treat.
Owl Light is not really a horror novel in the traditional sense, but Paine seems to have gotten lumped there along with other non-horror-writing folks like Geoffrey Household (The Sending) and Stephen Gregory (The Woodwitch) when no other genre seemed to fit their work. Actually, Owl Light has quite a bit in common with those two novels. All have a creepy air about them, a relatively slow pace, a readable tone, and the type of mismarketing that can hurt a career. There are overtones of the supernatural here, but more in the sense of a spiritual crisis than your run of the mill monsters, aliens, serial killers, or what have you.
The setting is a small town north of Pittsburgh (at the northern top of Butler County, for those in the area), where new girl in town Sybil Antissa has managed to insinuate herself into the lives of three men—the town pastor, Paul Eiden; the university’s biology professor, Grant Stewart; and one of the few people who straddles both camps, high school student Peter Newell. Eiden and Stewart are about to embark on an historic creation-evolution debate that’s been picked up by the media and polarized the town; Peter is one of the few people who hasn’t picked a side yet. Added to this confusion is Sybil, a mysterious older woman whom he is attracted to upon their first meeting.
Most of the story takes us through the interactions of these characters and those around them, and how Sybil emotionally manipulates them. Like Ender’s Game, remove the supernatural elements from this novel and you’ve still got a cracking good story. And despite an ending that leaves the reader with far more questions than it answers, there is still a feeling of completeness at the end of it; Paine knew what he was doing in ending the book like that. (One wonders if it was a setup for a sequel, or whether Paine was really willing to take that much of a risk.) Either way, this reader sees a successful book. *** ½