The first two hundred pages of Will Millar’s debut novel were brutally painful. Oscillating from mildly entertaining to clichéd and boring, there were no less than three separate occasions in which I was compelled to give up. I persevered, and halfway through, Infernal Machines takes off and does not stop until the end. That’s right, ladies and gentleman. I did not hate this book – at least not half of it.
Millar is clearly emulating the greats of horror fiction’s heyday. And by the greats, I basically mean Stephen King. This is perhaps why I was so put-off by the beginning of the novel. Set in the 1980s, middle-school students Paulie and Stoner are constantly in and out of trouble. Coincidently, they find themselves the target of a nasty group of bullies known as the Nazis. Their community is still recovering from the antics of a serial killer from years prior, and a suspicious newcomer has opened up a neat little specialty shop in town.
If the town of Chapel Harbor sent its criminals to Shawshank State Prison, this could be Stephen King’s greatest hits. King mastered the childhood-besties-coming-of-age novel time and time again, (see “The Body,” Hearts in Atlantis, and Dreamcatcher). And sure, the new shopkeeper is creepy, but he doesn’t hold a candle to Leland Gaunt in Needful Things. Oh, and Millar names his serial killer “The Junkman,” which sounds an awful lot like The Stand’s “Trashcan Man.” I don’t need to go on, here.
My initial fear was that Infernal Machines would merely be a cheap ripoff of motifs mastered by King, and there is no doubt that Millar depends on many of these concepts as a jumping off point. However, it seems that after putting all of this work into pirating dear Stephen, Millar finds his own voice. It appears in bits and pieces at first, but he suddenly gains confidence in his abilities and ideas, and it is here that he truly shines. The centerpiece of his shopkeeper’s collection is both disturbing and frightening, and yet somehow it also evokes sympathy. Paulie and Stoner are developed into actual characters instead of one-dimensional stereotypes. It definitely takes some time, but Infernal Machines gets good.
In the electronic version of the text, there are a few typos here and there, making it difficult to take Millar seriously at first. Nevertheless, even those seem to disappear as the novel progresses. Infernal Machines is very much a first novel, but it truly makes me look forward to Mr. Millar’s second.