Ever read a book and the mental movie the words conjured was mostly in shadow? Where grit coats every surface and blood runs black instead of red? These are the stories that don’t promise happy endings. In fact, they make sure that the characters experience as much pain–physical and otherwise–as possible and are put through such a meat grinder of a plot that it’s a miracle even the reader makes it out alive. You know what sort of books I’m talking about. Where “morality” is a dirty word and violence is as inescapable as a black hole.

We come back to them again and again, lured by some masochistic (or would it be sadistic?) attraction to bleak landscapes and characters whose therapy bills alone would dwarf the national debt. To sate your twisted appetites for a little longer, here are three contenders for the title of Bleak Champion–which is akin to winning a rusty razor blade-eating contest.

THREE A.M. – Steven John

THE RUNDOWN: Fifteen years ago, the city Thomas Vale lives in went into quarantine mode to protect itself from a mysterious disease ravaging the population. Soon after, a mysterious gray mist settled over every alley and avenue, turning the city into a foggy maze. Since then, Vale has made a minimal living as a P.I., in-between frenetic bouts of drinking. Then a sultry vixen sidles up to him in his favorite bar and asks for help. The wrong man has been accused of a murder, she claims, and she needs Vale to come up with the proof to help him go free. In the course of solving this case, Vale finds plenty of answers, not just about the ill-accused victim, but also about the entire city, the mist, and why he was involved in the murder investigation in the first place.

THE CONTRAST: It’s questionable at first whether Three A.M. falls into the fantasy or science fiction genre because of the mists and what it all hides. Vale himself is quite stuck in his rut of self-pity and self-destructive behavior until events finally force him to remember what it’s like to be a decent human being. While it has its share of fisticuffs and gunicuffs (Whaddya mean not a real word?), it also goes to great depths exploring Vale’s mental and emotional stew, which often reeks of whiskey.

IMMOBILITY – Brian Evenson

THE RUNDOWN: Josef Horkai wakes up with a splotchy memory and finds himself paralyzed from the waist down. All he knows is that the outside world has suffered some sort of catastrophe, and he’s now part of a clan of humans huddling in an underground shelter. Except…Horkai himself isn’t quite human anymore. The same disaster that ruined the world also changed him, making him the only one among them capable of venturing outside and retrieving a critical piece of equipment that has gone missing. At least, that’s what he’s told. The truth, however, may be far more terrible than he can imagine…

THE CONTRAST: Switching from fantasy to science fiction, we discover the well-trod post-apocalyptic landscape has been re-imagined as more of a psychological exploration into the nature of humanity. There’s a cyclical structure to the narrative, heavily dosed with an impending sense of doom that accompanies Horkai like a personal thundercloud.

SANDMAN SLIM – Richard Kadrey

THE RUNDOWN: James Stark has just escaped from Hell and brought a few new tools and tricks back with him. He’s now out to destroy the people who sent him down below in the first place (and killed his lover in the meantime)–which might be a challenge, since many of his old pals have thrown their loyalties in with various top dogs in the supernatural community in exchange for some nasty power boosts.

THE CONTRAST: This starts out as a straightforward revenge plot fueled by magical violence. One of Stark’s first acts is to lop off a guy’s head about as casually as making a sandwich. By the end, though, it unfolds into a much bigger conspiracy with nothing less than the fate of Heaven and Hell up for grabs. Stark keeps up his sandwich-making approach throughout.

THE VERDICT

You could judge these books by, say, comparing their cover art to see which one hits that perfect shade of “Abandon All Hope, Ye Who Enter Here.” For the sake of time, though, we’ll just stick to my personal opinion, which is a perfectly valid scientific method. Sadly, while Three A.M. starts out quite promising, even with Vale’s addiction to misery and emotional abuse, when it hits the halfway point and pulls back the curtain on everything, you’ll likely find yourself wishing things had remained a mystery. Because of this, it falls into Third Place.

Sandman Slim and Immobility are a tough pair to choose between because they’re so different and of equal quality. About the only thing they have in common is that they both happen on earth (mostly) and involve humans (mostly). Other than that, you’ve got different genres, wildly different environments, and different writing styles.

I’m going to name Immobility as the winner in this round–partially because it is truest to the portrayal of a truly hopeless, soul-sucking situation. At the same time, it makes you root for Horkai as he stumbles and crawls through a near-lifeless world, praying that maybe…just maybe he’ll find some form of salvation from his hellish existence. Even though you know the chance of that happening is less likely than surviving a direct hit from a nuclear warhead.

So, if you’ve been having an absolutely wonderful day and can’t stop smiling at all the good fortune that’s come your way lately, use Immobility to obliterate those warm fuzzy feelings into a thousand mewling fragments.

And then suck it up.

Filed under: Book ReviewBooks

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