Creed by James Herbert (1990)
Every once in a while I get in the mood for a James Herbert book. Herbert !943-2013) was a best-selling British horror writer with 23 novels, one graphic novel, and two non-fiction works to his credit. His specialty was in over the top (sometimes visceral) horror with occasional dollops of sex. With the exception of his Rats series and his David Ash trilogy, Herbert seldom repeated himself and, in the case of these two series, Herbert kept topping himself with each book. Stephen King praised the "raw urgency" of Herbert's first two novels, writing they "had the effect of Mike Tyson in his championship days: no finesse, all crude power."
As his career continued, Herbert's writing smoothed and became more nuanced, although his intensity remained. Creed, Herbert's fifteenth novel, was the first after a helter-skelter schedule of publishing a novel every year (with one exception). From this book onward, Herbert would take at least two years to craft a new novel.
The hero of Creed is no hero, a fact the Herbert makes plain in the first paragraph. Joe Creed is "a sleaze of the First Order" -- he is mean, selfish, belligerent, obstinate, cynical and could be considered either amoral or immoral, depending on the circumstance. These qualities make him perfect for his profession. Creed is a paparazzo, a photographer who makes his living photographing celebs at their worst or most embarrassing. Creed is very good at his job. He may be despised by his fellow paparazzi, but he has also earned their grudged respect.
Creed is divorced. His ex hates him. His ten-year-old son is an unpleasant, obese, and sullenly spoiled child of the Augustus Gloop ilk. There's also a mysterious woman with the unlikely name of Callie McNally, who keeps promising to explain things but never really does. And a horrific mass murderer/child molester/cannibal who had been executed fifty years before but somehow is still walking about. And there's a bitchy, gay gossip columnist and his plain, sexually repressed secretary. And there's...well, there's a whole lot of freaks, monsters, weirdos, and shapeshifters, enough to fill Universal horror movies for a couple of centuries.
We start at the private (meaning, NO PRESS ALLOWED) burial service for an aged movie star long past her prime. Creed is lurking in a nearby crypt, cameras ready. He gets some great shots of present and past notables, and when the service is over and the crowd departs one person remains. He is tall, almost skeletal, dressed completely in black, and turned so that Creed cannot see his face. While Creed watches from the crypt, the man does something highly obscene to the grave. Of course Creed gets pictures. Then the man turns and faces Creed. The man's eyes are like black holes. He is tremendously old and exudes evil. When Creed develops the photos, the darkness in the man's eyes begin to spread across his face and then the entire photograph, leaving everything black.
And so begins Creed's reluctant and cowardly journey into supernatural danger, eventually leading to a deadly masked ball that amps up the one Edgar Allan Poe wrote about in 1842. Throughout the journey, Creed stubbornly refuses to believe what is happening about him.
Somehow Herbert pulls this off. He takes an unlikable protagonist, substitutes every obvious chance for humor with chills, and leaves the reader with a slew of questions, while giving us an entertaining -- albeit disquieting -- read.
This one is for hard-core horror fans.