I’ve loved reading Richard Laymon’s horror novels since, as a teenager, I picked up a copy of his horror novel Flesh. That book totally engrossed me with its riveting, and at times quite shocking, sci-fi-tinted, story of alien infestation and zombie-like menace. Here was a horror writer who knew how to distil his words and ideas down into sharp and scary texts, time and again, to great effect.
Alarums is equally punchy and precise. Its focus is upon a pair of sisters, Melanie and Penelope Conway, who couldn’t be more different. Melanie is a concert violinist, and is quiet with a slightly retracted and passive personality, whilst her sister Penelope is the opposite; she’s very attractive and quite outgoing, and is bold and assertive where her sister is more restrained.
Unlike her musically-inclined sibling she’s never had problems attracting men, more that her problem is she’s often fighting them off. That’s something that creates a definite tension between the two, and is an undercurrent throughout the novel.
Melanie also differs from her sister in that she has a unique telepathic gift, one which causes her to have the most harrowing of visions at the most unexpected moments. Such a moment occurs at the story’s inception when the ‘power’ kicks in at a music recital – Melanie is playing along in the orchestra and then suddenly collapses in seizure.
What appears to all and sundry as a stroke or similar medical incident, actually seems to Melanie to be a warning that someone close to her is in peril. She’s experienced such a vision before, when her mother was killed. Convinced her sister is in danger this time, her and her boyfriend make an overnight drive to Los Angeles to ensure Penelope’s safety. Luckily Pen is at home, but what’s troubling is that she’s receiving phone calls of a most disturbing nature, and the real danger may be much closer than the group might have imagined.
It soon becomes apparent that the life of the girls’ father is in danger. And who seems to be the ideal culprit, but the wicked step-mother. Ah, the traditional storylines (and villains) are the best ones, are they not?
Make no mistake – Alarums is definitely horror-pulp. But it’s from a stable of good horror-pulp. It represents Laymon on a roll, when he is keeping it simple, but scary. This short novel is actually a little less focussed on the horror aspect, and little more on the paranormal/mystery/thriller angle than most Laymon books in that regard.
But that’s advantageous, and its short but exciting length keeps you turning those pages in expectation of revelations, and consistently delivers new twists and turns along the way. In this way it’s not as bloody as many of his other books, leaning more toward supernatural thriller than horror novel, but utilises other hooks to grab the reader and pull head first into the story.