Friday, October 27, 2023

Karen S. Wiesner {Put This One on Your TBR List}: Cast a Cold Eye by Alan Ryan

{Put This One on Your TBR List}

Book Review: Cast a Cold Eye by Alan Ryan

by Karen S. Wiesner

Here's a legitimate question that I posed in an earlier review I did (The Ritual by Adam Nevill Is a book worth reading if the end is disappointing? In other words, should I "waste" my time, money, and effort on a book if ultimately the story doesn't live up to the promise it initially had? While I'm sure most people would say "don't bother with anything less than perfect from start to finish" (and the logical practicals among us would add that they won't know the truth of that until after they've done the "wasting"), I find myself disagreeing. Before we get into a discussion about my reasons for disputing the majority vote, let's talk first about the basics about this particular book.

I stumbled on Cast a Cold Eye, a 1984 horror story writing by Alan Ryan, while browsing online horror book selections. In this novel, an American writer, Jack, heads to a small, remote village in Ireland to research a book on the Irish famine that took place near the place he settles. In the process, he sees and hears things that hint at a very dark legacy the locals--including a priest--harbor and almost humor. Easier to put up with something, even an evil something, than it is to fight it, right? Interestingly, one reviewer of the book pointed out how this story focused on faith and belief and how those things can sometimes be "horrible and frightening to behold". Indeed.

From the moment I started reading this story, I was intrigued and glued to it. Even when nothing crucial seemed to be happening in the beginning--just a writer going about his usual business--I felt something mysterious and creepy lurking beneath the surface, keeping me on edge as the dangers rousing along the fringes of Jack's present reality become clearer and even more menacing. One of the descriptions reviewers of the work noted was that this is a "slow burn horror" because the story builds slowly but steadily. That's something I love about really good horror novels. The setting was also deliciously haunting and oppressive. When a story's atmosphere settles in my chest like a dense fog, I'm at my happiest. Dread at the horror rising steadily in every direction, hemming in the main character so he was trapped, kept me turning the pages, not wanting to set the book down for any reason.

Sounds ideal for a lover of horror, doesn't it? I was on tenterhooks when I approached the last few pages of the tale. But what should have culminated into a frothing horror instead fizzled and died. Done. Over. Goodbye. All that suspense building only to have that unworthy ending was almost enough to make weep (as a reader and a writer). I'm not the only one who had this reaction. Other reviewers described the end as "inconclusive, anticlimactic" and as a "too quiet" story that "petered out at the end". I read the last few pages over and over, wondering how this had happened. Surely the author himself, his critique partners, his editor, the publisher, advance readers all cried out at the crime that had been committed by failing to make the final denouncement worthy of the rest of the story! I couldn't imagine how any of them could have missed this lamentable flaw in the otherwise flawless material. Speaking as an author, a reader, a fan of truly good horror, in the name of all that's literally good and right, why?

My severe disappointment had me passing the book off to someone else who I expected would enjoy most of the book as much as I had. I wanted to know if another reader would have the same reaction I did to the end. Maybe I was just being overly critical or wanting to rewrite it the way I would have written it? But…no. This person shared my angst at having an incredible story basically come to nothing.

After that situation, I thought I'd trying reading another book by the author. I will note that I had an extremely hard time finding anything. While the books Alan Ryan had written were all listed on his Wikipedia page, finding copies of them proved very difficult. That may be because the author died in 2012, and maybe he gained a post mortem following that caused his books to become scarce as a result. The one short book I was able to purchase of his, accepting a used edition, was Amazonas. This story was written under his full name, Alan Peter Ryan. I'm given to understand that he took a 20-year hiatus from writing horror before this one came out. In any case, the novel was about a man who trespassed the boundaries of something that should have remained untouched. Good premise. Excellent writing. Loving it like I did the previous…and then the end came, and, for me, all the previous tension-building fell flat. Again. I'm sorry to say that this repeated experience did affect my willingness to search harder to obtain the author's other offerings.

That leads us back to my original question: Should I "waste" my time, money, and effort on a book if ultimately the story doesn't live up to the promise it initially had? The reason I'm saying yes, that Cast a Cold Eye was worth reading despite the crushing dismay I experienced at the end of it, is because--save for a few pages at the end of the book--I would have said it was one of the best horror novels I'd ever read up until that point. True that, if I ever read it again, I will know upfront that I'm probably not going to like the end, though the journey would have been immensely worthwhile.

Additionally, I've found as a lifetime reader, I can actually come back to a story that I once read voraciously years ago but ultimately hated or had a violent response to and see it in a whole new light. This has been the case with The Hunger Games series. My initial reaction was modified by a new perspective I simply didn't have when I was younger. In the case of The Hunger Games, I actually liked the trilogy better the second time around. The first time I read it, I was a young mother who couldn't conceive of a world where a parent would allow something so awful to happen to their children. I didn't buy the premise of the series, so enjoying it was because of that was nearly impossible. All my opinions were filtered through that unwilling perspective. Though the story itself was compelling enough to get through each of the books, I couldn't enjoy them or identify with the characters' struggles. The second time, I was older, and I actually felt sympathy for people I'd once cursed.

Could that happen with Cast a Cold Eye? Maybe. As a writer, I learn something when I love a story from start to finish, and I learn just as much when I don't love it fully. Even if I'm at extremes, these are the stories that are indisputably memorable. The characters and situations stick with me permanently, almost like a haunting. It's the mediocre that doesn't cast a long shadow and soon fades from all remembrance. Better to love or hate a story, rather than being lukewarm or cold to it, because it's then that it becomes apparent the author is clearly capable of rousing strong emotions in me. I want to be moved by every book I read, whether for joy or grief. Even if that means some disappointment, those are the tales that will stick with me evermore. However, after having read two books by Alan Ryan that I hated the last few pages of but loved everything else, I found myself unable to consider the dubious investment worth repeating.

Karen Wiesner is an award-winning, multi-genre author of over 150 titles and 16 series.

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1 comment:

  1. Many years ago, he edited one of the best ever vampire fiction anthologies, originally called simply VAMPIRES, later re-released under another title. The stories are arranged in chronological order and include most of the classic short works, so it's an excellent reference source. I'm not sure I've ever read any of his fiction.