Darren J Guest – Dark Heart

On Leo’s sixteenth birthday, something bad happened. Something so traumatic his mind fractured, and darkness filled the crack. Twenty years on and the crack is a canyon. The schizophrenic hallucination that once offered sympathy has taken to mocking him, and the memory of that long-ago birthday claws at his darkest fears, overshadowing even the murder of his younger brother Davey. But just when life can’t get any worse… Leo dies.

A demon returns after twenty years.

An angel follows close behind.

Leo is caught in an age-old conflict, his past lying at the dark heart of it all.

At the beginning of this year one of my bookolutions was to keep exploring SF, YA and horror as I’d really enjoyed the first steps I’d set within these genres in 2010. So when author Darren J Guest contacted me to review Dark Heart I jumped at the chance based on the flap text above. The book sounded really cool and right up my alley, so when it also turned out to be a horror novel I was doubly pleased. And after reading the book I was even more pleased as I really enjoyed this further foray into horror.

Leo is a very interesting protagonist. Dark Heart is his story and while there is plenty of action and skulking about, the main meat of the plot is psychological. As stated in the blurb, Leo is fractured when he is sixteen and this is reflected in his behaviour; on the one hand he is an adult, but at the same time he is a scared teen. In Dark Heart we see him, literally and figuratively, face his demons. Leo has to look his past and his memories in the eye and deal with them, in the process healing himself and fully growing up. Guest handles this expertly and I thought his choice of hallucination for Leo was awesome; Connery’s Bond is perfect for the wry, mocking manifestation of Leo’s wiser, grown-up half. Together with Bond, Leo manages to face his memories, which allows him to make the necessary connections to solve the mystery of Reuben and Michael. Despite all of this, Leo doesn’t come across as an unreliable narrator. The reader is put on the wrong foot a couple of times in the novel, but Leo is there right along with her and doesn’t seem to be hiding anything.

The concept of Dark Hearts is quite interesting, though one would expect that more people – if not most – would be Dark Hearts, as almost no one is either purely good or purely evil. I also liked the idea of Heaven and Hell but Purgatory being reincarnation. I found this very cool, almost a hybrid of Christianity and Hinduism, which seems oddly fitting. It did make me wonder about other Dark Hearts however, do they get to choose, like Leo, or are they just shoved back into a new body waiting to be born?

The narrative is driven by two triangles: Leo-John-Sadie and Leo-Michael-Reuben. The first triangle is your classic love triangle and one wonders what Sadie would have made of the whole situation, as she’s never made aware that the two boys are competing for her. Both Sadie and John, while very important to the story, are placed somewhat outside the narrative; we don’t really get to know them, other than through other people, Sadie through Leo and John’s memories and John through Leo and Mick, Leo’s surrogate father. Michael and Reuben are equally enigmatic, though they take a far more active role in the book. In both triangles Leo is the linchpin and as such he is the one that is completely fleshed out. On the whole, the fact that the secondary characters aren’t so much underdeveloped as they are just a bit thin – they could have had more meat on their bones – isn’t a huge problem at all. It allows us to stay with Leo, who is the heart and soul of the book.

The way Leo returns to life and the twist at the end had me completely surprised. The ending is superb, with Leo facing his version of Purgatory head on and leaving the reader hope for his salvation. Dark Heart is an awesome debut. The book was very enjoyable and a compelling page turner. If you are looking for a scary book with limited gore or horror of a psychological thriller bent, then Dark Heart is the book for you. It will be interesting to see where Guest goes from here, but if Dark Heart is anything to go by, it will be good.

This book was sent to me for review by the author.

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  • Ria

    The concept of a fractured mind intrigues me a lot, and combining religious elements is just the icing on the cake! Methinks I'll have to check this one out if I get the chance. Great review!

  • Good to see Dark Heart getting some traction around and about the blogosphere! I confess I'd only just begun it when various things arose and I became suddenly, terribly, unconscionably busy… but I've been meaning to get back to Dark Heart since, and this might just the kick in teeth I need.

    Thanks for the review, Mieneke. Darren will be pleased and I'm pleased if he's pleased that you're pleased. :)

  • I shouldn't really say this without reading the book, since it appears some supernatural is going on, but the idea of a fractured mind–well. I'll try to keep it down to annoyed, since I know losing the mind is classic horror. People don't just become schizophrenic. They may have a break–a teenage onset–but it is a disease and progresses like one. Schizophrenic hallucinations are almost always auditory. Rarely visual. Known some people with this disorder. Good people.

    No matter what they do or do not remember or face or do not face, they will not be cured.

    I know it is a literary trope–the use of madness to indicate hell or a fracturing of self. Get a little sick of it.

    Though it does sound like a good book.