Welcome to the small town of Safe Haven, Wisconsin. Quiet, remote, isolated…Safe Haven is the perfect place to live out the golden years fishing on the lake. Life here follows the moniker of the town…until a helicopter explodes above the lake. Something is set loose in the woods and this thing is hell bent on annihilating the townspeople one by one.
“Afraid” is the first novel by Jack Kilborn (or at least the first novel under this name). Kilborn has collected a laundry list of horrific situations and weaves each together to create a tapestry of absolute panic and suspense. He makes a flowing terror tale of nearly every unnerving experience a person could fear.
A brief glimpse behind the scenes might look a little like this:
Counselor Kilborn: “Welcome to this week’s session of the ‘So Scared I Pissed Myself’ group therapy. I’m glad to see some familiar faces here tonight. Norman, stop pouring the peanuts into your pocket. Those are for everyone. Ok, so, let’s begin…we’ll start to my left and go around the room. Tucker?”
Tucker: (staring at his hands) “I had the dream again…the bad one.”
Kilborn: (excited) “The one where you are pushed into the water with your hands bound and you’re certain you’re going to drown?”
Kilborn: “That’s great. Next!”
Manfred: “I have a horrible fear of being eaten alive.”
Kilborn: “Wow, that’s a good one!”
Manfred: “Don’t you want to know about my childhood?”
Kilborn: “Nah, I’ll handle that on my own. Next!”
Sampson: “I’m afraid of dying in a fire.”
Kilborn: (scribbling notes) “SWEET! Next!”
And so on….
Kilborn’s strengths are not just the nastiness with which his victims are tortured and killed. Any fan of Clive Barker or Steven King could come up with some new and creative amputation and gore. Kilborn draws the readers in through a collection of three methods. First, the characters are introduced with just enough information to make the reader relate to them. This is done through relationship descriptions. Instead of discussing every fold and pastel lining of a character’s outfit, Kilborn writes briefly about their life plans and how they care about other characters in the book. This creates a chain between the characters. The readers see who they care about and why and the readers soon care, too.
The second method is brilliant but brief description. Kilborn uses details in his imagery; just enough to serve as a memory hook for the reader. This might be the caliber of a rifle, the horsepower of a boat motor, the texture of day-old coffee at the diner, or one particularly vile recurring smell that will remain with readers for months afterward. This detail speaks to Kilborn’s willingness to research thoroughly before writing about a topic.
The third method is the flow of the novel. Kilborn foregoes traditional chapter breaks, never letting up on the throttle. Readers are introduced to one character, then another, then back to the first who begins the attempt to escape death. A third character is introduced, while the second is attacked, and soon, this cycle of relationship, pain, suffering and fright grows into a constant assault on the senses. Readers will be delighted and disgusted at Kilborn’s ability to manipulate physical and emotional pain.
Kilborn puts realistic people in situations that simply shouldn’t be real, and there’s the horror. He masters the movement between points of view. Readers don’t simply observe the happenings in two dimensions like a slasher film. Kilborn lets readers enter the heads of each character, hero and villain alike, just long enough to understand them. This allows readers to understand everyone’s motivation.
Instead of one villain, Kilborn introduces a Red-Ops team of terrorists, set loose on U.S. soil with a single target. Anyone in their way is expendable, but not in a clean, quick manner. These villains would spend every moment inflicting torture and pain if not for their orders and the manner in which they’re programmed. “Afraid” is a relentless emotional ride. Readers will find themselves cheering, cringing, crying or gagging…with no let up until the final page has turned.
Kilborn has stated in previous interviews that his goal was to write the most frightening horror novel ever. If he hasn’t succeeded with “Afraid”, he’s come damn close. Expect to see shadows and shapes in the corner of your eyes while you’re reading. Brew an extra pot of coffee to keep from going to sleep. Finish the bottle of wine instead of the glass so you can fall asleep without dreaming. Put the pistol under your pillow and set the alarm system. Something is out there going bump in the night, and once you’ve read “Afraid”, you will be, too.