High noon and horror

17th February 2006 at 00:00
David Buckley finds machismo, the macabre and outbreaks of violence in these powerful page-turners

The Road of the Dead

By Kevin Brooks

Chicken House pound;8.99

Demon Thief

By Darren Shan

HarperCollins pound;12.99 hbk

The Intruders

By EE Richardson

The Bodley Head pound;8.99 hbk

The Hand of the Devil

By Dean Vincent Carter

The Bodley Head pound;10.99 hbk

It's high noon on Dartmoor with a fistful of sheep. Kevin Brooks' hard rain-soaked thriller The Road of the Dead is an English Western set in a menacing Devon village, where 19-year-old Rachel has been found strangled on a remote moorland road.

Back in London her 14-year-old brother Ruben has a telepathic vision of her death, sensing the presence of the "Dead Man" as her murderer. Ruben is sensitive, articulate and intelligent, but his 17-year-old brother Cole is a taciturn, menacing figure, indifferent to pain and his own survival but driven by fierce loyalty to his family. He is also capable of sudden, devastating violence, something he inherits from his gypsy father imprisoned for murder after being set up in a bare-knuckle fight.

When Cole decides to go to Dartmoor to find the murderer, the boys' mother sends Ruben to save Cole from self-destruction. But the boys quickly run into trouble with the unsavoury locals. The pub falls silent when they walk in; the beery village bobby seems to be in the pay of a local hard man called Quentin, whose teeth are far from perfect. Quentin has misshapen henchmen with names that suggest cowardice and bullying: Tripe, Skinny, Nate and Red. For "pub" read "saloon" and for "bobby", "corrupt sherrif", and, with some let-up in the weather, Cole could be the Man with no Name riding into a settlement in New Mexico.

But Cole is on a journey to redemption. His love for his family may only be expressed through action, but when he meets a gypsy girl who becomes an ally in adversity, we begin to see the slow melting of a glacier.

Cole is a compelling figure, both hero and candidate for counselling. Some adults may feel uneasy about violence which is both escapist and dangerously delusional - that windpipe-crushing punch to the throat sounds handy - but this is a powerful teenage thriller.

Darren Shan acquired a loyal fan base in primary schools with his 12-book cycle The Saga of Darren Shan. Demon Thief is the second volume in his new series for older readers, The Demonata, which began with Lord Loss.

Kernel Fleck, 14, bald since birth, feels like a freak and lives a lonely life with his parents and baby brother, Art. He has always seen patches of light no one else can see. When a demon steps out of one of these patches, slaughters the village schoolchildren and disappears with baby Art, Kernel pursues him into the demon universe.

The violence in Demon Thief is graphic but more playful than in The Road of the Dead. Shan's demonfighters spend so much time keeping their balance on the squashed entrails of dismembered monsters that you'd think the author would have given them special boots. Young teenage boys will love it, and slither delightfully with the hero in bucketloads of "blood, mucous and all sorts of slime", like kids on CBeebies wallowing in Day-Glo gunk.

Trading the tangible for the untangible, EE Richardson's skill in The Intruders is to tell a chilling ghost story firmly rooted in well-observed 21st-century family turmoil. Joel and his fiery adolescent sister Cassie are taken to live with their mother's new partner and his two children, Tim and Damon. Working on the basic principle of sibling rivalry - that you should never say something nice if you can think of something nasty - Cassie and Damon quickly fall out.

Tim and Joel, though, get on so well they discover they have been having the same dreams and seeing the same two terrified ghostly children running around their large isolated house.

Cassie is scornful until a seance changes her mind: "awesome, the coolest thing ever". Horror and destruction follow in this riveting page-turner as they uncover the brutal story embedded in the brickwork.

Dean Vincent Carter's debut novel The Hand of the Devil employs a young journalist eager for a scoop who unwisely accepts an invitation to a Lake District island where the sinister but mild-mannered Reginald Mather offers him the chance to see a rare mosquito.

The Ganges Red turns out to be the sort of freak you'd find on Celebrity Big Brother, a vengeful woman in mosquito form. Unfortunately young Ashley has not checked his lines of communication or told anyone where he is going and he finds himself trapped, treading on a pile of dead bodies soon likely to include his own. Good, entertaining horror.

David Buckley teaches English part-time in Sheffield

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