First published back in October of 1990, US horror author Richard Laymon’s novel ‘The Stake’ was described by the author himself as a novel whereby “nothing actually happens”. Personally I think this is a woeful misrepresentation of a carefully constructed novel, with more tension and suspense than you can shake a stick at.
Larry Dunbar is a horror writer of varying success. He’s not quite broken through into the best sellers list, but his novels have sold well nonetheless. Perhaps it’s because his books are always filled with horrific depictions of violence and horror. But unlike the subjects that he tackles in his work, Larry’s life is pretty average. He lives in a quiet suburban neighbourhood with his wife Jean and their teenage daughter Lane. Next door live Pete and Barbara – not only next-door-neighbours but good friends of the Dunbar’s.
It was just another outing for Larry, Jean, Peter and Barbara. On their way home, they decide to take an impromptu detour, taking them to the Sagebrush Flat where a deserted town has been left abandoned. More than intrigued, the group begin to explore the silent ghost town, wandering amongst the empty buildings and dust covered streets. But it’s the boarded up and padlocked old hotel that really draws the group in. After breaking into the premises, Barbara almost falls through the time-rotten floor. And it’s that small accident that leads to the discovery of the coffin, locked away in a hidden compartment beneath the hotel’s staircase.
Upon opening up the wooden casket, the group are confronted with the withered remains of what looks like a young girl. But most worrying of all is the stake that they can clearly see protruding from the corpse’s chest. On the door to this compartment where the coffin had been resting, they can see a small crucifix hanging by a nail. The reasoning behind this and the stake seem obvious. Some deluded maniac had clearly believed that the unlucky young girl was some sort of vampire. The end result a tragedy beyond words.
A few days later, whilst Jane and their daughter are out of town, Larry and Pete get together and begin talking about their discovery out in the ghost town. Larry can’t take his mind off the corpse, and the harrowing story that must lie behind it. But it’s when Pete states what a great story this could make for Larry that the beginnings of a plan start to come together. They could drive out to the abandoned hotel again, collect the corpse, and bring it back to Larry’s house – stashing the body in the storage area above his garage. Larry could then write-up the story of the real-life vampire, and as a dramatic finale to the book and not to mention a spectacular PR stunt, Larry and Pete could pull out the stake whilst being filmed and see if the vampire curse is real.
Against his better judgement, and with a potential bestseller in mind, Larry agrees to his neighbour’s hare-brained plan. But he has a few conditions if they are to go through with this. The most important one being that the corpse is long gone before his wife and daughter get back. Their schedule is tight, so once they both agree to actually go through with this they head off to the Sagebrush Flat and the destination of the staked corpse.
But unbeknown to the two men, their visitation to the ghost town had not gone unnoticed. Uriah had seen the two of them enter the hotel and remove the coffin from under the stairs. He had watched as they loaded it onto their van and driven it away. And he knew exactly what was in the coffin. Because he was the one that put the girl in there. And she was certainly not the only victim of Uriah’s life-long vampire hunting campaign. The town is full of the corpses of his work. Uriah had been a very busy man. And now he can’t just stand by and watch what must surely be some more vampires come and take away one of their own. He had more work to do. More undead to hunt down and kill now.
Meanwhile, Larry’s daughter Lane Dunbar had been feeling a definite and very real attraction to her English teacher Hal Kramer. He seemed to connect with her in ways that other teachers, and indeed other men, simply couldn’t. And she knew that he was beginning to feel the same way too. But Hal Kramer isn’t the man that the young teenager thinks he is. He has a dark secret. A twisted desire to beat and rape women. And Lane Dunbar was now in his sights...
When Laymon described the novel as “the book where nothing happens” he was no doubt referring to the more reserved pace given to the tale. True enough the storyline doesn’t hurtle along at a mind-blowing mile-a-minute pace, with action and bloodshed around almost every corner. Unlike much of his earlier work, ‘The Stake’ takes the time to really set the scene, establish a mood and carefully developed characterisation, and ultimately weave a more involved and established tale. And he has achieved this perfectly.
The principal character of Larry Dunbar was obviously based on Laymon himself. Representing his life at the on-the-brink-of-success stage in his career, Laymon draws on a wealth of personal feelings and hopeful longings, fleshing out the character with a true-to-life depth that comes across to the reader within a matter of just a chapter or two.
Bisecting the novel with two strong plotlines, Laymon manages to keep up the momentum as well as the mounting tension with a constant switching between the two. True to form, Laymon packs the Hal Kramer – savage serial rapist and women beater extraordinaire – storyline with plenty of bubbling libido and then shocking sexually motivated brutality.
Not exactly a typical ‘vampire’ novel per se, the tale is instead much more geared towards that of a psychological obsession and gritty sexual crime thriller. However, the vampire element is always there, underlying everything that’s taking place, and finally comes to the very forefront of the tale in its heart-in-mouth finale.
Even with a more reserved pace than the majority of his earlier work, ‘The Stake’ is still undoubtedly a hell of a rollercoaster of a ride, with plenty going on, and worrying storylines shooting off at all angles. Indeed, the warmth in characterisation that Laymon brings into the novel really pulls the reader into the tale – much more so than a simple mile-a-minute horror-packed pace would. The reader can easily sympathise with Larry as well as with his daughter Lane. With the emotional trauma piling up for the two of them, not to mention the very real threat level becoming oh-so-apparent, it’s hard not to get caught up in the whole elaborate storyline.
Some cite this as Layomn’s best work. Others see it as missing the sledgehammer approach that can be seen in most of his earlier novels. For me, I’d say it’s quite simply a damn good read, with plenty of thrills and spills to keep me utterly engrossed in the tale.
The novel runs for a total of 506 pages.
© DLS Reviews