Disclosure: I downloaded only the free Kindle sample after seeing this book referenced on Twitter. I do not know the author and do not want to. I am an author of historical romance and contemporary gothic romance and assorted non-fiction.
Here's the link to the post that got this all started.
The site has rules regarding their reviews, and this author broke the rules.
Now, I gave a quick review to another obnoxious author's book earlier today, but that was in a genre -- vampires -- I'm not familiar with with, so I didn't really get into any kind of analysis. The formatting and mechanics of the first few Kindle pages of Todd Davis's The Third Bride were enough to turn me off.
Dean Klein's behavior was magnitudes greater than Davis's, but it was also off my direct radar. I was initially inclined to put my post on Twitter and let it go at that. But nothing good ever comes from letting the BBAs get away with it, so I added the link to my timeline here.
Whether it's something in the air or the water, or a response to the current political climate, these authors' actions put a subtle pressure on both the reading and the writing community. To a certain extent, traditionally published authors are insulated against this. It should be noted, however, that author Natasha Tynes, who reported a transit worker eating on the job and posted the employee's picture on Twitter, has lost her publishing deal and her book already set for publication has been delayed. Bad author behavior does have consequences.
Tynes's behavior, obviously, had nothing to do with her writing and/or publishing. Davis and Klein, on the other hand -- along with a few others in the past few days -- have gone public with their bad writing behavior. Davis tweeted that he believes all reviewers should give "indie" authors only five-star reviews, even if the books are bad, because it's all a matter of boosting sales. I guess.
Anyway, when the news of Klein's behavior reached my Twitter feed, I followed up on it in part because the whole haunted house trope is right up my alley, pun intended. I at least know something about this horror sub-genre because it morphs over into the gothic. And though I'm not an expert on the gothic sub-genre of romance, I've read more than a little and of course I've actually written a gothic romance featuring a haunted house.
So let's get started on this review, based solely on the free Kindle sample.
At first I was kind of inclined to ignore the cover as posted on Amazon. It's obviously the "flat" of a paperback cover, which seems kind of odd. I mean, why wouldn't the author just post the regular cover art? The paperback edition is shown as being published in 2012 via CreateSpace, so we know the author is essentially his own publisher. He has control over how the Amazon listing looks.
But what I've screenshot above is from the actual Kindle download. It's not just from the Amazon listing. The author doesn't even know how to do his cover for his Kindle edition!
THE COVER IS MESSED UP!
I rarely would DNF a book based on the cover. If the cover is that bad, I just wouldn't pick it up. Maybe if the cover were stolen or something, I might comment, but bad cover art isn't one of those things that usually grabs me. In this case, it's not the cover itself -- which is just letters on a red background anyway -- that's bad; it's the formatting of the cover that fails.
Any expectations I had for this book being even marginally readable have gone out the window.
Most of us, I think, know what a "teaser" is. It's that page at the front of a book -- usually a paperback edition -- that contains a little snippet of the book as an enticement, a taste of what's to come. And we know what a blurb is. Again, it's a hint of what the book is about, setting the tone and even some expectations about the plot. "They were strangers in a strange land, never suspecting that their forbidden love could topple an empire and turn the tide of war!" That sort of thing.
Here's what Dean Klein has given us:
That teaser page needs a spoiler warning!
This is a book about a haunted house that itself is a serial killer. Oh, and the wife of the couple in the house has empathic powers. I doubt that's revealed on the first page of the novel.
But this isn't a new concept, regardless what Klein would have the reader believe. Though I haven't read The Haunting of Hill House by Shirley Jackson, even a Wikipedia summary suggests that there are some similarities between Jackson's novel -- acclaimed by many as one of the best horror novels of the 20th century -- and Klein's. The idea that the house is an active participant in the events of the story is one. That a main character has unknown, subconscious psychic abilities is another.
Barbara Michaels used the semi-sentient house as a character in her novel Someone in the House as well.
Fortunately, author Klein doesn't stint on his teaser: there is another full page plus a bit more! At least he lets us know he's biased.
If you read his entire response on SciFiandScary, you're not surprised at his shameless self-promotion. But it's still rather mind-boggling, isn't it? that someone -- anyone -- really thinks this highly of himself and his work.
Is the work worthy of that self-confidence?
In a word, no.
The teaser is over-written and laden with spoilers. The opening of the book is the same.
It's an epilogue-as-prologue opening, in which we learn that Gil is looking back on the events of five years previously, when he and his wife Robin first saw the house. It's now decrepit, falling apart, mouldering. They are no longer -- apparently -- living there. There's a strong hint that they are not living together, and perhaps she is no longer living.
The reader is also subjected to this bizarre formatting of indented block paragraphs. An extra line between paragraphs plus the indentation is overkill, and to me it suggests the document has been formatted by someone who doesn't know what books look like.
The writing, however, is uncomfortable. It's not exactly awkward, and there aren't a whole lot of the painful, obvious grammatical mistakes we've seen in other books. What Klein seems not to understand is one of the basic tools of story-telling: point of view.
The book opens more or less in Gil's point of view, as he thinks back over those five years since he and Robin saw the house. But Klein slips into a distant omniscient point of view for no real reason, as when he describes Robin's sudden illness:
Robin was completely unresponsive, the blood flow to her brain all of a sudden strangely insufficient to maintain consciousness.
Klein, Dean (2014-01-18T22:58:59). Hell's Shadows . Dean Klein. Kindle Edition.
When Robin recovers, Gil accepts her insistence that she's fine, but Klein pulls the camera back, so to speak.
If this man [Gil] had known the real reason Robin had passed out, he would have been far more than worried. He would have known visiting the ER would have accomplished nothing. Indeed, no ER in the world was equipped to diagnose the reason why this woman had suddenly passed out. Gil also had no way of knowing Robin’s fainting spell occurred on the very ground upon which people had horribly died, all the deaths related to an old ramshackle property directly across the road from them.
Klein, Dean (2014-01-18T22:58:59). Hell's Shadows . Dean Klein. Kindle Edition.
This kind of thing worked for Rod Serling, sort of, and maybe for Lemony Snicket, but it doesn't seem to be working for Dean Klein. It falls short of direct author intrusion, such as Henry Fielding did in Tom Jones, but it's distinctly outside the story. The net effect is a distancing of my involvement with the characters and the action.
The whole idea of a house having been witness to horrific events is hardly a new concept either. Nor is it innovative that an ancient haunting would interfere in a marriage, as this was the premise for Howard Rigsby's The Tulip Tree (1970), which I read last year and reviewed here.
The scene then abruptly shifts to a specific locale in 1830. Now there are new characters, but the narrative voice is still disengaged. Klein is telling everything, never showing anything.
I skimmed through a few more pages without ever feeling drawn into the story. Nothing is particularly creepy because I'm not engaged with the characters and what's happening to them. Without any explanation of how the 1830 scene is connected to Gil and Robin's story, Klein abruptly shifts back to the "present" to hand us on a silver platter Gil and Robin's personal histories. All telling, no showing. This is backstory that should come out in the course of the novel.
I no longer care. At 25% of the free sample, I'm done. This is bad writing. So bad that by itself it does not earn even half a star. Combined with the poor formatting -- the cover, the block-indented paragraphs -- it slides into negative territory. Throw in the author's atrocious behavior, and this becomes irredeemable.
(Did you notice that Klein couldn't even spell the title of Stephen King's Pet Sematary correctly?)
Speaking of Stephen King, I want to end this with what I consider one of the best parts of his book On Writing:
I am approaching the heart of this book with two theses, both simple. The first is that good writing consists of mastering the fundamentals (vocabulary, grammar, the elements of style) and then filling the third level of your toolbox with the right instruments. The second is that while it is impossible to make a competent writer out of a bad writer, and while it is equally impossible to make a great writer out of a good one, it is possible, with lots of hard work, dedication, and timely help, to make a good writer out of a merely competent one.
King, Stephen. On Writing: A Memoir Of The Craft (p. 142). Scribner. Kindle Edition.
There are two parts to writing fiction: story and story-telling. No matter how good the story is, it will never ever be good enough to salvage poor story-telling. A good story with a bad writer is still bad writing, and it's almost certainly such bad writing that not even a good editor can rescue it. In the hands of a competent writer - one step up from a bad writer -- the story may survive, but it's still going to need help.
Stephen King acknowledges that it's possible, though not necessarily probable, that a competent writer can make the leap to good writer, but he doesn't explain why the jump from bad writer to competent one isn't even feasible. Personally, I think there's a raw talent that can be nurtured, maybe even trained, that puts the writer automatically into the competent category. You're there because it's natural. It's like the kid who can shoot baskets or hit baseballs or spin on ice skates or hit high C. You don't know how you do it, but you do.
You're never going to be a bad writer. You start out competent.
I can't shoot baskets. I might get one out of 25 or even 100 tries. I was a little better at baseball/softball. Never could spin on ice skates. You don't want to hear me sing. I have none of these raw talents, and no amount of coaching, training, or practice is going to make me any better.
Dean Klein is almost sure never to improve as a writer. The native talent isn't there, but neither is the willingness to learn, to put in the hard work, to listen to critics, to improve. He already knows it all.
He's never going to make it to zero stars.