About a month ago, under recommendation, I got a copy of Black Womb by author Matthew LeDrew; the first installment in an ongoing novel series that thus far is up to five parts. The Black Womb series has been steadily released over the past five years by small publisher Engen Books, whose stable boasts a healthy mix of young and experienced creators.
My tastes in literature are, admittedly, fairly limited; I’m almost exclusively a horror guy. But I’m also a pretty big fan of comic books, which is why I assume the Black Womb series was recommended to me. Perhaps the best way to dilute the book’s premise down to a single sentence would be to call it “a bizarre fusion of horror film and superhero gimmicks”.
At a brisk 197 pages, Black Womb is more a novella than a novel, but that suits me just fine, as I take a preference to shorter, lighter horror literature over denser stuff. I’m one of those guys that adores Stephen King as a short fiction author, but cringes in tedious agony when endeavoring to read his novelist efforts.
The plot of Black Womb follows a teenager named Xander Drew who lives in the small isolated town of Coral Beach. One day, the town is suddenly terrorized by a serial killer calling itself the Black Womb; a fiend who stalks teenagers in the dead of night and steals their healthy organs as a calling card. As the attacks grow progressively more brazen, Xander finds that members of his social circle (both his friends and his foes) are the target of each encounter. Local law enforcement begins to suspect the teenager, unaware that the true motivations behind the slayings are far more insidious and calculated than they could possibly anticipate.
I suppose now is as good a time as ever to warn you that there will be some spoilers in this article. So read with caution.
Being Matthew LeDrew’s first novel (published in 2007), Black Womb does suffer from some freshman shortcomings. However, I found that the author’s potential remained ever present, if sometimes submerged beneath the surface. He’s had five years to hone his craft since this first outing and has published at least one volume a year over that span of time, so I’m certain he’s grown as an author. Regardless, some elements of Black Womb can rub off as particularly rough around the edges.
The first five chapters of Black Womb read like the novelization of a slasher film, and I don’t mean that to sound like a negative critique. LeDrew’s prose is very suited to building suspense and the anticipation of attack, as teenagers are stalked in the night by a mysterious shadowy figure that disembowels them with a long, curved blade. In the preface to the novel, LeDrew states, “My favorite types of stories at the time were (and still are) science fiction and real classic horror. Not slasher film horror, suspense horror”. I’d argue that slasher films are a form of suspense horror (if perhaps the lowest common denominator of the genre) and the first five chapters of Black Womb read like a very typical slasher movie.
Xander lives in a small town with a police force that apparently consists of only two people (except when a small army of cops provide a convenient plot resolution near the end) and much of the lion’s share of Black Womb involves his social circle of teenage archetypes. Xander is the downtrodden nerd, Sarah is the “whore”, Mike and Cathy are the happy couple that’s so in love, Jamie is the jock, and Grendal, Tommy and Suds are the local bullies/hellraisers/rapists that inevitably get their just desserts.
It’s very much your run of the mill slasher movie setup for the first five chapters and that isn’t necessarily a knock against it. The attacks from the Black Womb killer are presaged by some intense set dressing, as the killer scrapes his blade against the concrete to panic his prey before striking. The actual chase provides us with the terrified insight of the victims via inner monologue, which is something that the movies can’t provide. The slasher portion of the book ends with a slaughter at a house party reminiscent of Freddy’s attack on the pool party in A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge. Or, at least, that was the first thing that came to *my* mind.
What *follows* chapter five is where Black Womb began to lose me, I’m afraid.
The book transcends, very awkwardly and abruptly, from a horror/suspense novel into a superhero origin. We’re very quickly introduced to sword-swinging ninja villains with melodramatic codenames such as “Genblade” and “Spider”, a secret base called Alpha Quadrant that comes complete with its own self-destruct switch, and even an ominous overlord character dubbed only “Alpha”. While the prologue to the book provides some foreshadowing of this scenario, the shift in genres is so sudden it’s like driving a convertible over a speed bump at 70 MPH; and those passengers without their seatbelts on might get launched out of the vehicle entirely.
While LeDrew’s teenage cast from the first five chapters were derivative of slasher movie stereotypes, I still found them charming in their ways. Xander Drew’s “hacker” skills were pushing it a bit, but he was a refreshing sort of “downtrodden dork” that managed to be more endearing than a doormat. Unfortunately, the fact that author Matthew LeDrew gave the main character a modified version of his own last name opens the book up to suspicions of “self-insertion”.
The supervillain characters, on the other hand, don’t share in the charm of the teenage cast and all feel downright hammy and shallow. Spider and Genblade are sadistic and evil with few convincing motivations for their sinister goal of total world domination. They’re billed as the “flawless master race” that will replace humanity, but both highly trained and genetically engineered super ninjas fall prey to an average teenage computer dork whose only fuel in battle is the burning justice of his memories. When Poindexter starts besting them in sword combat, they lose all credibility as competent antagonists.
What’s worse is the *way* Xander defeats them in combat. Throughout the novel, the character is shown playing a video game titled “Marble Mutant Superheroes” (a thinly disguised legal approximation of Capcom’s “Marvel Superheroes”). When the time comes for the badly injured and physically infirm teenager to thrown down with the ferocious super-man, Xander uses “what he learned from Marble Mutant Superheroes” to defend himself. He even calls out the names of the anime-style special moves as he mimics them. And he wins.
Even considering that sequence, what struck me as the weakest part of the book was the character of Alpha. Despite being the main antagonist, he doesn’t appear until nearly the end and does so to the fanfare of zero build-up. In reality, he amounts to little more than a plot device included for the sake of spouting pages of clunky exposition (he has Xander strapped to a table and proceeds to describe in detail his entire origin and all the top secret projects going on in Alpha Quadrant). He’s described as a twisted, deformed and disfigured man who harvests healthy body parts to keep himself alive. I’m reminded of a very similar character named Alpha who appeared on the Men in Black animated series in the 90s. He, too, was the arch-nemesis character with a deformed and disfigured body that delighted in harvesting organs from others to make himself more powerful. I’m not insinuating anything harsher than an unfortunate coincidence, but I nevertheless found the similarities between LeDrew’s villain and the Men in Black’s arch foe a tad distracting.
“Unfortunate coincidences” crop up elsewhere in Black Womb and mar the reading experience. The titular character of Black Womb receives his super powers from a special quasi-sentient organ where his appendix should be; a “symbiote”, if you will. It secretes a jet-black, tar-like substance all over his body that gives him a number of ill-defined powers such as claws that pop out of his fists, an accelerated healing factor, an extended jaw packed with jagged teeth and huge glowing eyes. Basically, he’s the lovechild of Wolverine and Venom.
Then there’s the matter of some seriously melodramatic dialogue here and there (after having his suspicions about Xander brushed off by his friends, Grendel thinks to himself, “You’ll all pay for this. Nobody ignores Julian Grendel”). I think LeDrew’s skills lay more in prose than in dialogue, as characters tend to spout some rather hackneyed one-liners and rejoinders (when told that he shall be put down like an impudent dog, Xander retorts with, “Every dog has his day!”). Conversations tend to read very awkwardly and uncomfortably, as the flow feels extremely scripted and unnatural (think of George Lucas’s dialogue from the Star Wars Episode II script).
Characters frequently contradict themselves whenever it proves convenient to the plot. Grendel’s friends initially brush off his suspicions of Xander’s guilt, but later gleefully beat Xander to a pulp at a house party because Grendel told them to. When Spider is first announced as dead, her lover, Genblade, reacts with callous indifference, described primarily as “disappointment” with her failure. When having his showdown with Xander, however, he accuses the teenager of “killing the woman he loved” and uses that as righteous fuel in battle. So is he a hardcore badass incapable of feeling true love, or is he a pitiable product of bioengineering brought to vengeful fury over the death of the only one he has ever cared for? Because he can’t be both.
More distracting than perhaps anything else, however, was the daunting quantity of spelling errors present throughout the novel; a minimum of five or six per chapter. For all LeDrew’s skill at the crafting of ominous dread, nothing kills the mood worse than running face-first into spelling error and being forced to go back and reread the sentence, trying to decipher what the author had actually meant. I understand that spelling errors happen (Hell, there’s probably a few in this article alone), but it’s more that they do a disservice to his prose, and when they appear with such persistent frequency as they do in Black Womb, they can go from a distraction to an enduring frustration.
It’s easy for an author to miss spelling errors, as when you’re rereading something you’ve personally written, you tend to repeat the words in your head as opposed to reading them off the page and thus “skip” typos. But, well, that’s one of the reasons why editors are so important, as they provide a fresh eye to catch the things the author might have missed (to say nothing of questioning and critiquing the fundamentals of the story-itself). Being a small press book, I honestly don’t know if LeDrew acted as his own editor or not, but the sheer volume of spelling errors present would lead me to believe he did.
Like I said at the beginning of this review, Black Womb is rough around the edges. Yet, there’s a detectable undercurrent of potential throughout the book. If you can overcome the violent shift in genres 2/3 of the way through the book and make peace with a pretty pedestrian ending, the mish-mash of slasher-heavy horror and superheroics may succeed in pulling you in for some of the sequels.