Randy Chandler’s Bad Juju is that rare horror novel that does everything it’s supposed to: it entertains, it shocks, it horrifies, it keeps you reading. The only unfortunate thing is that it invites comparison to Stephen King’s Needful Things in that it involves a small town being menaced by a sinister supernatural force. Comparing the two is a grave error, however. King, in both his fiction and non-fiction, has obvious, seething contempt for normal Americans, while Chandler does not, and it shows in how he invites us to care about all the characters, even the evil ones.
That’s where Bad Juju shines brightest: the characters. What’s a small town like Vinewood, Georgia without the people who live in it? Sure, they’ve got names like Skeeter Partain and Corny Weehunt and Joe Rob Campbell, but they’re real and human and when terrible things start happening to them, you sympathize. Even when Chandler resorts to tropes like the widowed former sheriff character, he twists them around: the sheriff’s dead wife maybe wasn’t the nicest lady around. The ancient black preacher might not know as much about spiritual evil as he thinks. The mentally retarded guy’s no saint. These people share our flaws.
The story’s stranger elements don’t make themselves known immediately, and when they do, they become another layer of conflict in a town that’s already got some disturbing things seething under the surface: namely the Porch family, as mean a clan of townies as you’ll find, and twice as dangerous. Once Skeeter and Joe Rob wind up clashing with the menacing Odell Porch, the stage is set for terror, violence, and revenge.
Chandler eschews political correctness throughout the narrative; it’s refreshing to see people talk and act like real people instead of behaving like social justice boxes to be checked. The violence is ugly and pointless at times, which works. The writing is clear, unpretentious, and gruesomely descriptive. What more could you ask for in a horror novel?
Like I said in my review of Chandler’s short story anthology Devils, Death & Dark Wonders, why isn’t Randy Chandler a household horror name? In an overstuffed field of horror novels that you often have to force yourself to finish, Bad Juju is a breath of fresh (if occasionally fetid) air. Summer’s right around the corner: this book’s your beach read.