First published back in July of 1989, ‘Goat Dance’ was US author Douglas Clegg’s first full length novel to be published. The debut novel was particularly well-received by critics and the public alike, and went on to be nominated for ‘Outstanding First Novel’ by the Horror Writers Association.
Malcolm Coffey (affectionately nicknamed ‘Cup’) grew up in the small town of Pontefract, located around the mountainous landscape of Virginia. Pontefract is one of the out-and-back towns, where everyone pretty much knows everyone (and their business), whether they like it or not. It’s certainly hard to keep a good secret in the town.
Now, years later, Coffey is experiencing haunting nightmares surrounding his past. And then, from out of nowhere, Lily Cammack calls and leaves a message on his answer-machine. Suddenly he must go back to his hometown, leaving his depressingly mundane life as a teacher behind. He must fulfil a promise he made all those years ago to the one girl he loved. His one true love – Lily Cammack.
Returning to the quiet town of his youth, Coffey begins to realise the intensity of the strange and disturbing events that have started to take place around the community. A dark and evil presence that has been lurking within the town for centuries is slowly beginning to reveal itself. Good townspeople turn to murderous savages, mutilating their loved ones in the most disturbing ways under the influence of this terrifying power.
Coffey knows there’s something dark and corrupt that’s responsible for these recent outbreaks of horrific murder. He knows that somehow, he is the key to fixing it all. And with the help of his old school teacher, Dr Prescott Nagle, Coffey will get to the bitter roots of it.
There is a house in Pontefract that has been left abandoned year upon year. A rotten house with a horrifically dark past. A house that Coffey must now return to in order to kill whatever is tearing his hometown apart. Its past is finally catching up with the town of Pontefract. The crimes that were committed will be paid for in blood. For the evil that has consumed the town will never sleep until it’s unleashed its blood-soaked hell on everyone. The Goat Dance is calling..
First off, for a debut novel, it must be said that ‘Goat Dance’ packs one hell of a punch; marking out a solid introductory entrance for this (at the time) up-and-coming horror author. Clegg’s writing style instantly brings to mind the effortless storytelling of Stephen King, together with the abstract weirdness of Mark Morris and a smattering of a Clive Barker-esque dark imagination that’s run riot. It makes for a truly magnificent concoction, with nightmarish results.
In ‘Goat Dance’ Clegg has carefully spun a number of intricate subplots that eventually weave themselves into the main thrust of the storyline. Each individual subplot and branching-off substory has its own part to play in the grander scale of things. From Coffey's early relationship with the girl Lily Cammack (later as Lily Whalen), to the eventual death of Bart Kinter and his early stranglehold over Coffer’s life, to the story of seven-year-old Theodora (Teddy) Amory and the corruption that got inside her when she was brought back after drowning in the Clear Lake in the midst of winter. There really are so many layers and parallel running storylines to the novel.
The complex relationship between Coffey and his childhood love, Lily Cammack, is perhaps the most involved of these subplots. As the reader is taken through Coffey’s early years via ‘The Nightmare Book of Cup Coffey’, the reader is invited to watch how their young love blossomed and completely enveloped the two of them. Cammack is someone very special to our principal protagonist. Her part to play is Coffey’s life is duly given a predominant role, building up strong emotional bridges and purposeful bonds between the characters and the reader.
It’s this depth of characterisation that really pulls the novel together. Without the connections, the ties and the bonds, the storyline would simply be too scattered and unfocused. However, Clegg brings all the maniacal-loose threads tightly together with the seamless intertwining and overlapping of these character-driven elements.
That’s not to say this isn’t still a hectic and frantic mix of chaotic horror thrown around almost willy-nilly. Once Clegg gets going with his scenes of mindboggling horror, the man can really throw in some pretty disturbing corruptions of the flesh. And it all just seems to spill out at once, making for a pretty intense and oddly unnerving read.
However, surrounding this evil presence lurking within Pontefract is a delightfully well-written and compelling coming-of-age storyline, interspersed with a wistful return to the area of this very same childhood. It’s this ‘return to childhood’ element that so reminds me of Stephen King’s novel ‘IT’ (1986) along with the more monstrous aspects of Mark Morris’ ‘Stitch’ (1991).
The final quarter of the novel is a chaotic charge towards a hell-for-leather finale. Here Clegg throws in all he’s got with an absolute heart-pounding, adrenaline-pumping fury. The absolute edge of maddening insanity is just a gnat’s knacker away, with an immensely powerful evil unleashing all hell onto Pontefract. As Clegg exposes the town’s cruel past, the last pieces finally fall together, paving the way for an edge-of-the-seat final showdown to finish the tale off in an utterly breath-taking manner.
There’s so much in ‘Goat Dance’; so many miniature storylines, meandering subplots and interweaving character tales that it feels like a much longer novel. When all of the various storylines come to an end, it seems strange to think of it as just one standalone novel. Perhaps Clegg did overstretch himself somewhat in the many elaborate branches of this tale? Perhaps there did need to be more precedence put on the novel’s principal plot? I’m still somewhat undecided on the matter.
‘Goat Dance’ is certainly not a novel without its flaws. There’s a lot of unconcerned jumping between substories, which will ultimately disrupt the reader’s continual engagement with the progression of the tale. The pace is mostly erratic, leaping from intensity to plodding at almost the drop of a hat; with no thought for its effect on the novel’s overall impact on the reader.
However, there is so much of the good stuff in the tale that it seems to very much push these faults to one side. Even now, as I write this review having read the tale some ten years ago, so much of it has come pouring back to me after just the briefest of (memory-refreshing) skim reads. It’s an absolute testament to the quality of the tale how much just comes flooding back with the smallest of reminders. The sheer wealth of characterisation. The fears, the pain and the final fight against the overwhelming evil. It’s one hell of a debut. And not one to be missed.
The novel runs for a total of 422 pages.
© DLS Reviews