Horror Review: The Baker Johnson Tales by Terry M. West

The Baker Johnson Tales is an ongoing series of short stories by Terry M. West, all of them dealing with Baker Johnson, the Black Room inherited from his grandfather, and their shared legacy of darkness.

The year is 1925, the science of parapsychologist is just beginning to read its height of popularity, and detective fiction has just entered its golden age. Enter one Baker Johnson, part flawed parapsychologist, part hard-boiled detective, and part grieving widower and parent. The Giving of Things Cold & Cursed is really more of a character study than a short story, but it's extraordinarily effective in introducing the premise, establishing the character, and hooking the reader with a cold, clever twist at the end.

Without giving too much away, Richard Johnson (Baker's grandfather) was a parapsychologist who investigated paranormal phenomena, collected the haunted objects at their center, and safely stored them away from the world in his Black Room. The problem is, Richard became rather senile and unstable in his later years, and his last act of coherent thought was to order that those same objects be given away freely, returning their darkness into an unsuspecting world. Baker has been called in to settle his grandfather's affairs, and isn't particularly pleased to discover the fabled Black Room empty - for reasons that become all the more chilling upon the final reveal of that cold, clever twist.

The atmosphere here is perfect for this kind of a tale, and Baker is a fascinating character. He's arrogant and cold, almost to the point of abrupt rudeness, but he knows how to read and observe people. He worked alongside his grandfather in collecting those haunted objects, and their absence haunts him almost as deeply as the loss of his family.

With Servant of the Red Quill, West picks up the story two years later, with Baker having become a poor, drunken, sullen recluse, rather than the dark sort of avenging hero we may have expected after the first chapter. While he has no interest in resurrecting the Black Room, much less ever filling it again, an unwelcome visitor drags him back into the world of parapsychology.

The initial battle of wills with a clever, manipulative lawyer reminds both the reader and Baker himself of the man he once was, drawing him out of the shadows of gloom, and thrusting him back to the edge of true darkness once again. The man he's been summoned to assist, Jeremiah Simms, is an old confidante of his grandfather and a fellow collector of haunted objects. What convinces Baker to take his case, however, is the demon that is haunting the old man's daughter - an affliction that tugs at his heartstrings, reminding him of his own lost daughter.

The haunted object in question is what initially prompted me to give these stories a read. Simms is in possession of a rare, handwritten manuscript from the Marquis de Sade, containing a tale that even his scholars never suspected to exist, written in a strange language. His daughter has been working on translating it, and the deeper she's gotten into the text, the worse her affliction has become. At the risk of saying too much, it all adds up to an exorcism the likes of which is rarely seen in fiction, and a climax that more than delivers on the tension and the fear that West so carefully stokes.

While The Giving of Things Cold & Cursed was a solid tease, it really did leave the reader wanting more. Fortunately, Servant of the Red Quill delivers admirably, not only rewarding the reader for having stuck with the character, but making us hungry for more.

Book 1: Published June 28th 2014 by Pleasant Storm Entertainment, Inc.
Book 2: Expected publication: January 2nd 2015 by Pleasant Storm Entertainment, Inc.