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Story Time Christopher Treagus Review by
Christopher Treagus
by Diana Barron
Spectral Visions
TPB $15.95
ISBN: 1931402213

PHANTOM FEAST is a gruesome and original tale. Diana Barron glorifies in horrible, grizzly details. If you have ever wondered what it would be like to be crushed to death by a boa constrictor, trampled by rampaging elephants, or eaten alive by lions and tigers, look no further. Barron brings all these things and more to horrible life. Literally.

In her novel,PHANTOM FEAST, Barron tells the story the small town of Hester, which is overtaken by spirits. Though these are no mere garden variety of ghost. They are like nothing you have ever seen before. A number of circus animals have burned to death in a fire nearly a century before, and it is their souls that haunt the town, and seek vengeance on its inhabitants. This is a most original spin on the ghostly tale, as that most stories in that sub-genre focus on human hauntings, not animal. Rounding out her novel with a carnival of characters that includes a fat lady, midgets and dwarfs, motorcycle hoodlums,
and police officers who struggle to come to terms with the madness that overtakes them,
PHANTOM FEASTis nothing if not unique.

That is not to say, however, that it does not have its flaws. Barron has such a large cast of characters, and introduces so many of them throughout the course of the novel, half only to be killed off pages later, that I had a little bit of difficulty identifying who the true protagonists were. Though this added to the sense of dread that anything could happen to any one of them at any time, it also made it a little difficult to get into. One of the dwarves, Mickey, and his girlfriend Isolade, prove to be central characters later on in the
story, and I was able to settle into their lives and hopes and dreams eventually, but there were so many secondary characters swirling around them, I wasn't entirely sure who I was supposed to be rooting for. A few minor characters seem to step up into a larger role toward the end, particularly the police officer Jesse, who gains our sympathy because his wife and unborn baby are horribly killed.

Diana Barron does well to provide an exciting escalation of the terror as she builds toward the climax, but I found the ending to be a little bit ambiguous and disappointing. One of the characters is able to figure out what is going on and solve the puzzle, even though it is not evident just how he was able to so easily come up with the right answers. I had to wonder if they were given to him by the mystical hand of the storyteller. For my money, I also wanted a more concrete conclusion. The novel seems to have such great potential, that I felt a little dissatisfied that it did not end with a bigger bang.

These few things aside, however, PHANTOM FEAST is a great first novel.

It is rare to find something as unique and original as this. One of the most difficult aspects of being a writer of horror fiction is coming up with ideas and concepts that have not been done before. Diana Barron has succeeded in the hard part. Despite the fact that there are so many of them, Barron also excels at her characterization. Each one truly seemed to live and breathe. Even the ones that do not last very long are given the same depth and loving attention as the others. This, again, is an aspect that many writers struggle to accomplish, with variable success. And there is no doubt that Barron also knows how to horrify. Just look at any of the death scenes for an example. Each one is
positively gruesome, with plenty of blood and guts everywhere. Perhaps
PHANTOM FEAST could have used a bit of fine tuning, but the hard parts are accomplished with grace and ease, and well make up for the weaker moments. I have no doubt that Diana Barron will go on to have much success and a long career in this genre. Despite its few flaws, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel, and look forward to her next one. For originality and attention to all the horrible little gruesome details, I give PHANTOM FEAST three


This review copyright 2002 E.C.McMullen Jr.

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