I love myself a good horror novel (Wolf’s Hour, The Passage).  I can dig a sci-fi/fantasy escape every once in awhile (Ender’s Game, Game of Thrones).  Spy and espionage novels can be a rockin’ good time (any Ludlum, Alex Hawke).  I’m always up for a new Koontz novel.  Yet, these styles and genres don’t always fulfill me the way true literature can.

Now I’m not downplaying the expertise of the writers that yarn a great tale in the genres mentioned above; Koontz still creates some the greatest bad guys ever, Barker still makes me giggle with sadistic joy as he makes my nightmares come to life and Justin Cronin wrote a brilliant high brow post-vampire apocalyptic vision of America in The Passage.  In matter of fact several genre bending novels are in the list that follows.  However there is something to be said for the “genre” of “Literature” that separates itself form other genres.  It’s in the prose.  “Genre” novels will generally have the core of the genre be the focal point of the story (this is not all inclusive; just in general); horror will have the monster or evil entity the core of the prose you’re reading, you’ll be waiting for the scare with every line.  Romance has the palpable heart sore and thrusting manhood in every few pages.  In a sci-fi novel (again not all : see China Meiville) you are always aware of the fact that your in space.  I will re-iterate one more time; this is not a bad thing, it kind of comes with the territory.  With “literature”, you need more within the prose, the action(s) are not expected, they are not always welcome and they just … happen; no pomp no glorification no drum-rolls and cymbals clashing every time something happens.

I think I’ve noticed this before, but never has it happened as clearly as it did while I was reading The Devil All the Time by Donal Ray Pollack.  I had my fill for the time being of ‘genre’ novels (that I do love so much) and went on an internet search for lists of  top ten books of 2011.  This was on many of them.

And I know why.

The novel takes place over roughly 2-3 decades (mid-1940’s – mid 1960’s) and follows the lives of a handful of people and how their lives are interconnected by episodes of violence.  We watch young Arvin Eugene Russell deal with his father Willard and his dying mother.  We are repulsed and yet transfixed as Arvin is begrudgingly dragged into the forest daily to pray over a prayer log that his father has prepared to ask God to save his love from the cancer that is destroying her.  What the prayer log is and what it becomes is truly haunting.

We go back in time to see the life and love of Willard grow and how religion and the idea of God is a festering belief within him.  The Greasy Spoon is where he meets his future wife on his way home from the war, and we hear stories of that war and how it shapes him in the years to come.  Within that same diner many years later we meet another character; Sandy.  Sandy is swept away from her life of sleeping with the town boys behind the diner by Carl, only to be pulled in by his undertow into a life of bedding her and Carls future victims in a horrific murder spree reminiscent of Natural Born Killers.

Roy and Theodore, a pair of hollering, guitar playing, spider eating evangelicals are also part of this menagerie that are also entwined with the other characters, once again propelled by their own violent act.

And oh so many other richly developed characters, including one “preacher” that I didn’t care for; he was too nasty too disdainful that I didn’t believe him as I did the rest of the cast (but he was fun in an evil kind of way)

Pollack creates a spindly net of actions, reactions, thoughts, wills and  desires to create a world where the holy spirit cannot be distinguished as an emissary of god or the devil.  These atrocities that occur, these murderous moments do happen in sudden bursts of horror.  The reader is not made to follow the virgin girl down the basement steps where they know the killer lurks.  The reader is instead led along a lonely dirt road with each and every one of the characters as they dream, as they want, as they love, as they kill and that murder is just another action along the way.  No pomp, no fireworks, just actions and eventual reactions.  We are indeed horrified by the actions undertaken by these characters, but when they happen they simply happen and that is the wonder of not only this book but of literature as a genre in it’s own right.

Donal Ray Pollack has created a cast of characters and actions that I will soon not forget.  Some will say that I loved this novel in light of it’s very dark look at religion, and I cannot say I didn’t enjoy that facet.  However, I hope that my readers (I do have readers of this blog, right??) give me a little bit more credit than that.  I will end this review with a quote from the novel that summarizes where the book is coming from in relation to religion (and it is said early on, so I’m not ruining anything) and I’m paraphrasing ’cause I’m too lazy to look it up 🙂

-sometimes too much religion is just as bad as too little.  sometime worse –