Written by: Matt Molgaard
Given the rash of zombie tales I’ve covered recently and the dwindling interest I’m beginning to exhibit in regards to the subgenre, Frazer Lee’s spin on the perfect job gone awry, The Lamplighters feels a bit like clemency for me. I don’t want to say I’ve given up on zombies, because I do love the idea of the dead rising to walk, but one can only read so many tales rooted in the same soil before boredom and – even worse – mild disdain comes into play. No one wants to be trapped in the same nightmare forever, after all. The Lamplighters is in my eyes, somewhat of a savior, truth be told.
The story, which offers plenty of layers and a heaping dose of unexpected revelations, puts a nice spin on glorious idealism. Imagine the perfect life, or for that matter, the perfect job: clean some mansions; lounge about plenty of inviting pool sides; relax breathe easy, make some money and unwind. Who wouldn’t love a job as a “Lamplighter”? Well, anyone unfortunate enough to sign on for the gig, that’s who. Complete isolation from the “outside world” (no electronics, books, or anything that might keep one up to speed on the world’s evolution are permitted) initially appears to be the only true glaring detractor, but Marla, a recent addition to the crew working the Meditrine Island is about to learn that predators roam, prison awaits and a much higher power, one of dreadful intent, oversees things on this should-be glamorous escapade.
I’m dying to dig into the details of this story, because Lee loads the artillery and fires with liberation. There is no singular directive at work here, its madness stacked upon madness, and determining protagonist from antagonist is at times challenging. For the most part it really works. The tactic creates characters that breathe: there’s nary a static personality to contend with, and whether you love or hate specific characters, they are indeed memorable. Furthermore, as a reader, there’s quite a bit of suspense behind certain motives. HNR readers will know in advance that I’m not out to spoil the feast, and in the case of The Lamplighters, I’m going to remain really, really mum. This story is as much mystery as horror, and what’s mystery when the answers and culprits are laid out in advance?
A jarring conclusion that feels as though it’s at slight odds with itself awaits readers. There are many bold maneuvers executed within the final pages of this novel, but I can’t sit back and tell you every piece slides perfectly into place. That just isn’t the case: there are a few loose strings that never manage to be tied, and a few admissions that feel like an oddly rewarding smack in the kisser. The Lamplighters really does offer a finale that just has to be taken in and judged on a personal basis. Maybe the climax works for you, maybe it doesn’t. For me, for the most part, I found rewarding closure to Lee’s unique story. That’s not to say, I must confess, that I thought the tale a perfect creation. The waning sequences in particular read a bit shaky for a few different reasons.
My greatest complaint in this specific instance comes in the form of an (often subtle, but quite often very blatant) awkward shift in character behavior as the novel winds down. There are two ways this story can go, obviously: good or bad. Which direction this story turns will not be revealed here, but I’ll note that some of the responses produced by Marla, her sidekick/Lara Croftish heroine buddy and Adam, a suspect character who works as a guard on the island, just don’t jive with the chaos Lee assembles in the first 75-percent of the novel. It’s all too conflicting, and at times, there are decisions made that almost conjure a laugh: really, that’s what they’re doing while all of this is unraveling?
No novel is perfect, but this is a damn fine one up until a supremely strange swing settles in and we’re eyeing personalities that clearly conflict with the ones we’ve already come to know. Again, this is all a bit vague on my part, but I’m a hater of the spoiler, and therefore, this is the kind of criticism you get from me. However just to switch things up a bit, I will give you a single example of poorly injected filler: at one point, the aforementioned trio is holed up in a building while a horde of vicious bastards attempt to break barriers and turn their insides out, so what do they do? They decide a nice comfy meal would be ideal, and while imminent threat looms, they proceed to chow down, the mood surrounding the table being relatively light. Hiccups like this can really blind the eyes after such a fantastic buildup.
I’ll wrap by keeping things pretty simple: The Lamplighters is a novel you should seek out. It’s going to capture some imaginations, and it’s going to prove a disappointment for others. I fall into that “somewhere in between” category, but I certainly lean in favor of this novel. It’s a creative tale that works well at combining character study and pure spectacle, but it’s ultimately a book you’re going to have to judge for yourself. I give it a solid rating, but you may not: this one is a tough call. I personally applaud Frazer Lee for giving me a story that squeezes itself from the contemporary pop culture box. This isn’t all about sparkly vampires, hungry corpses or haunted corridors, it’s something entirely different, as a whole, and I’m grateful for a story that works against today’s grain.