I tore through Bad Men, John Connolly’s enjoyable and exceedingly grisly new supernatural thriller, over the course of one feverish day when I was stuck in bed with the flu. The pages and the dismal hours flew by, but never once, as the heads toppled and the blood spurted and the enraged ghouls swarmed through the spooky New England woods, did I feel the need to go downstairs to check if the front door was locked.
It wasn’t because Connolly didn’t try. On the contrary: ”Bad Men” – written with far more care and panache than the genre requires – is packed with so many over-the-top evildoers that you can’t focus on any of the baroque monsters long enough to become truly afraid.
The novel’s likable young heroine, Marianne Elliot, has fled with her young son to a remote Maine island called Sanctuary after betraying her psycho-killer husband, Moloch, to the police. (Charlie Parker, the Portland-based private eye from Connolly’s ”Dark Hollow” and ”The White Road,” makes a cameo.) Still terrified of Moloch, she changes her name and her look. But Sanctuary turns out to be no sanctuary (surprise, surprise) for Marianne – nor for anyone else. In 1693, the tiny island was overrun by a pack of ”bad men” who raped the women and children before slaughtering the entire population. A few contemporary inhabitants, like soulful, gentle 7-foot-2-inch Joe Dupree, Sanctuary’s only full-time cop, think that the massacre ”tainted” the land. Periodically throughout the intervening centuries, people have met mysterious and gruesome ends while wandering in the forest near the settlers’ burial site. Recently, enormous, creepy gray moths and a nasty little girl ghost, her eyes ”black and hungry, jealous of life,” have been flitting around the island. Dupree thinks he feels ”a sensation in the air, like the prelude to an electrical storm,” portending a new wave of terror.
That would be Moloch. Mouldering in a Virginia prison, he dreams by night that he is rampaging across a mysterious colonial Maine island, musket in hand, slaying women and children. By day, he dreams of murdering Marianne. Hunting her down becomes priority No. 1 after he is sprung from prison by his loyal posse of perverts, rapists, and homicidal maniacs. The group blazes a trail north, leaving countless beheaded, sliced-up, and grotesquely violated corpses in their wake. One dark and stormy night, they sail to Sanctuary, where their clash with the island’s furious ghosts, not to mention Marianne and Joe Dupree, erupts into a bloodbath of epic proportions.
Sure, all of this looks a lot like Stephen King territory, down to the haunted Maine setting. But Connolly is no King. As the bodies pile up, they seem less and less consequential. The plot gallops along, the characters jump off the page, but this is one horror novel you can safely read when you’re home alone on a rainy day.