Silent Children by Ramsey Campbell
Spooky Old Mr. Woolie.
The name sounds like something children would make up to scare each other at sleepovers--a new Bloody Mary, perhaps. But in the English hamlet of Jericho Close, he's all too real of a monster, a home contractor whose horrible crimes come to light in the days immediately following his death. Dead children were found buried beneath the floors of the homes that he had been paid to renovate, sending shockwaves all throughout the community.
The first body was discovered in the home of Leslie and Ian, she the owner of a classical music store and he her troubled and delinquent teenage son, both still coping with a recent divorce. There are many bodies found, and many families affected, but these are the two that the story focuses on.
After a number of failed attempts to sell the house, they resign themselves to accepting its sick history. But, hounded as they are by the media and other locals, Leslie decides she may feel safer if there was a man in the house once again. This role is filled by boarder Jack Lamb, an American horror novelist living abroad to research his next book. As expected, Ian quickly looks to him as a father figure and Leslie quickly looks to him as a lover.
But there are a number of things that they don't know about Jack Lamb, and a number of things that they don't know about Mr. Woolie, either. But the truth starts to break the surface when another girl goes missing--this time, one that Leslie and Ian are intimately connected to.
What this story is really about is tragedy and violence, not the act itself, but the repercussions that the act has for the guilty, the victims, and the innocent alike. As such, it is not a balls-out horror, but rather low-key and soft-spoken--whispers, really, about terrible things. This goes hand-in-hand with its lineage. It has a very British feel to it, and seems almost to be screaming for BBC screentime in its classic sense--grainy celluloid and low, low production values included. With the introduction of Jack Lamb, there are hints of Americanism, but they prove to be just as false as he is.
All in all, it was a decent story, and although I appreciate what the author was trying to accomplish, I simply could not find myself enjoying it nearly as much as critics seem to think that I should. Understated horror is fine, but sometimes you have to get off of your tip-toes and make a real charge at it. Maybe its an American thing--maybe like certain foods, the distinguished British brand of terror is something you have to learn to enjoy, blood pudding for the literary set. I'm willing to accept that possibility.
I mean, I'm American. I don't like Poirot either.