It’s midnight, the witching hour, and the ominous chanting from the orchard hill has been replaced by incoherent screams of terror. That can only mean it’s time to return to Oxrun Station, the supernatural town where evil stalks the streets at night and people don’t always die when they’re killed. Let’s listen to The Sound of Midnight, by Charles L. Grant.
Oxrun Station is a quiet, peaceful town. It’s children are ordinary, innocent kids. Their favorite place is the toyshop run by Dale Bartlett. Dale Bartlett’s ordinary world is about to end. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Oxrun Station is a gathering place for evil. The children’s games are an ancient ritual woshipping an old and angry god. Their temple is an abandoned orchard. No god can like without sacrifice. Will Dale Bartlett be the next adult to die?
Source: the back of the book, but here a Goodreads link as well
The Sound of Midnight has all the elements of a potentially good horror novel: possessed children, a secret cult performing a ritual to awaken their sleeping gods, supernatural murders carried out through fire and water. And, unlike previously-reviewed Oxrun Station novel The Bloodwind, it doesn’t take 3/4 of the book for the story to actually get started: things kick off with a murder right off the bat. So why is it that, despite all that, the book never quite gels?
I think it’s because the supernatural rules by which the story operates are never made clear. Okay, so awakening the Children of Don and Llyr requires a certain number of supernatural murders by midnight on November 1, carried out using the Hound of Culann chess pieces to direct the gods’ wrath; and Dave Campell tried to prevent this by giving the chess set to Dale Bartlett and teling her to sell it to an out-of-towner. Why didn’t he just destroy the pieces? Are they like the One Ring, capable of being unmade only in the fires of Mt. Doom? That’d be a pretty contrived explanation, but at least it would be an explanation – the book doesn’t actually provide any reason whatsoever for Dave’s action. Later, Dale disrupts the ritual and gets the cult leader dragged off to hell by throwing the chess pieces into the supernatural flames summoned by the gods. So I would normally assume that it was only in such supernatural fire that the chess pieces could be burned – except, that it previously had been implied that the very same supernatural fire would not damage the chess pieces. You know, since Hound of Culann pieces were given to sacrificial victims in order to mark them as targets for the gods’ fiery wrath, and would afterwards be found undamaged amidst the ashes and charred remains of the poor immolated suckers who’d been carrying them. It’s hard to be impressed by the characters solving a problem when the rules of the problem don’t make sense. So, rather than it feeling like a natural climax to the story for Dale to figure out how to destroy the chess pieces and disrupt the ritual, it seems like either Dave was an idiot for not destroying the pieces in the first place or else Dale was granted a peek at the script in order to magically know that the chess pieces could be destroyed in this way (and only this way) despite the fact that the same fire had failed to destroy them before. It’s not solving a mystery if the answer just comes out of nowhere.
And then comes the part of any horror novel I like least – the shock ending. It seems to be a rule that, no matter how completely the forces of evil are defeated, no matter how deader-than-dead the monster appears to be, it has to inexplicably reappear or return to life at the end, no matter how little sense it makes. It’s so predictable that my usual reaction is just to sigh, roll my eyes, and pretend it didn’t happen. But The Sound of Midnight managed to not only do this badly, but do it badly in a way I’ve never seen before.
See, Dale is in the hospital after destroying the chess pieces and disrupting the ritual. She has one of the formerly possessed kids, Jaimie, with her and is talking like she’s going to adopt him – which might seem a little strange, considering that she only knows him as a customer of her toy store and recent vessel of an evil god, but remember the law I pointed out in my review of Industrial Magic: any woman who is a protagonist in a supernatural series simply must adopt the first adorable orphan they meet. With Jaimie’s parents now dead, obviously Dale is going to adopt him, no matter how little sense it makes; that’s not the stupid part. No, the stupid part is that he then opens his hand and shows her a Hound of Culann chess piece, causing Dale to go into a screaming fit of hair-tearing insanity. Except… it’s not like this chess piece magically restored itself from destruction. Dale already knew that there was one piece absent from the collection she pitched into the flames, because it was she herself who tossed it away in order to divert the evil fireball manifestation trying to turn her into one of the burnt-offering sacrifices. Even with this one piece still intact, destroying the others seems to have worked: the ritual stopped, the cult leader was sucked into the bowels of the Earths, the children were freed from possession, and so on and so forth. And yet, despite her total victory, Dale is having hysterics like it’s the end of Halloween and Michael Myers has just returned from apparent death to stab her in the last few seconds before the closing credits.
See, usually the problem with the final shock is that it completely undoes the story’s closure: the monster is still alive after all, the evil force kills the final girl just when it looks like she’s escaped, and it turns out the protagonists didn’t actually accomplish one single thing. Here, that isn’t the case – the hero really did succeed, the evil really was stopped for good, the girl really did escape with her life – and yet she’s acting as if she’d failed. I suppose you could argue that fighting the forces of evil so traumatized Dale that the sight of the Hound of Culann triggered PTSD; but if her recent experiences were really so horrible that she can’t bear to be reminded of them, you’d think she wouldn’t be falling over herself to adopt Jaimie – who, remember, spent the past five months possessed by an ancient evil god. But having him living in her house is apparently A-OK; unless he’s holding the one remaining chess piece, in which case it’s time to run screaming for the hills? I don’t get it.
Anyway, since his graven image played such a big role in the plot let’s see what the Hound of Culann himself thinks of this story:
Not amused, huh? No, me neither. The Sound of Midnight can go to the dogs.
Final Rating: 2/5