by Keith Knapp
After a devastating earthquake hits Los Angeles, a group of survivors find themselves whisked away to a place known only as The Town. It is there that they will face their inner-most demons and relics of the past as they try to find a way out and back to reality. But an evil presence awaits them there. It knows their fears, their sins and their lies and will do anything to keep them right where they are.
Something warm and wet dragged itself across Mike’s face. He stirred, but the pounding in his head kept him from opening his eyes. Did he go out last night, buy two twelve-packs, tie one on and pass out? It could have happened. On nights when he missed her the most it usually did. He hadn’t thought about her in weeks, though. Yet there Alison was, right in front of him, knocking on his brain, tugging at his memories. The warm and wet feeling returned, and he wondered if he had vomited in his sleep and was now rolling around in leftovers of whatever he ate last night. Something whimpered. His stomach was doing somersaults, whimpering and grinding away. Nothing a little Pepto couldn’t fix. This hangover was going to suck. Then there was another lap of wetness followed by a louder whimper, like a dog was trying to wake him up. But as far as Mike could remember, he didn’t own a dog. In fact, he hated dogs.
He forced his eyes open and found himself staring at the wise and wrinkled face of a St. Bernard. He was not waking up in his own bed. And he hadn’t been on a bender last night; his head was clearing too fast. He also hadn’t puked—the wetness was from the St. Bernard’s tongue. He wouldn’t have to wash vomit off his sheets, so at least there was that. His day wasn’t shaping up to be as bad as originally thought.
Mike pushed himself up on his elbows and the dog jumped back, its tail wagging madly. It whined again, so it wasn’t jumping for joy and wanting to play. No, something was wrong. The dog went to lick Mike’s face once more, but he pushed the animal away with a hand. “Stop it. I’m up already. Jesus.” Keen to obey him, the dog immediately sat down and waited as Mike tried to get his bearings. He was lying next to a station wagon that wasn’t his. He couldn’t recall knowing anyone that owned one and hadn’t had such a car in his shop in months. He’d been test driving one he’d been working on, but that had been an Acura, hadn’t it? He was pretty sure it had been. Above him was a crisp blue sky and to the right, maybe two-hundred feet away, was a plush forest. The sun was out and birds were chirping. So I’m in a park somewhere. Methinks you were drinking last night, my man. Mike rested his weary back against the car. The rear door next to him was open. He had been trying to get into this car. Why did he need to get into it so badly? He couldn’t remember, but he knew the back door hadn’t been an option. Something about picking open the trunk was in his brain, then it was gone, wiped away. The dog watched him, every few seconds letting out a small huff of a sob. Mike gave the dog two quick pats on the head. The dog licked his hand, then hopped into the station wagon and motioned his head toward the front seat. As the dog turned (he thought the dog’s name was Roscoe) Mike saw specks of blood on his jowls. “You okay, boy?” he asked the dog while wiping his canine spitcovered hand on his jumpsuit. And that’s when he remembered what had happened. It all came back in a blaze. The flat tire. The earthquake. The nice lady trapped in her station wagon. He had tried to save her. And then he fell. The idea that he had had one too many was long gone. He suddenly wished he had gotten shit-faced last night. At least that he’d understand. I should be dead. The nice old lady (Dorothy, that was her name) still sat in the driver’s seat, her chest pushed up against the steering wheel. She should be dead, too. Wait, I think she is. Her head lay over the dashboard at a harsh right angle, her neck clearly broken. It was as if she was inspecting her own chest through the spokes of the steering wheel. Blood had pooled from a head wound Mike couldn’t see onto the dash, obscuring the speedometer and fuel gauge like syrup. Dorothy’s right hand still clutched the wheel in a vain attempt to steer the car away from the fall. Surprisingly, Mike himself seemed alright. Sure, there were some sore spots that would no doubt turn into some nasty bruises along with a few cuts and scrapes, but that was all. Considering he should at the very least have a broken arm or a shattered leg Mike Randal was doing just fine and dandy. Roscoe whimpered again, positioning his chin to rest on one of Mike’s shoulders. The dog looked at Dorothy with sad eyes.
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~Check it out on Goodreads REVIEW
There’s a soft spot in my heart for atmospheric novels that draw me to places I’ve never been and that, often, don’t necessarily exist. Perhaps it’s odd to use “soft spot in my heart” and “horror novel” in the same paragraph, but I’m doing it anyway. Keith Knapp’s Coda is both horror and that sweet spot of atmospheric that catches my mind up in brilliant imagery and unanswerable questions.
The book introduces us to several characters in quick succession. Each has, what seems to them, a major problem. From the angry teenage girl who’s just gotten out of an abusive parent-child relationship (if not in the best way) to the man who lost his wife years ago but still grieves her loss like it was yesterday, I felt a connection to each of these people. Some I wanted to dislike but found I couldn’t. At their hearts, they were people trying to survive and not always making the best decisions. Who can’t relate to that?
After what appears to be an earthquake shakes up the highway and injures many, our plethora of protagonists find themselves in a world where all is not as it seems. They all recall the road tilting and dropping them down a decline they shouldn’t have survived. But they did. How? Why? And more importantly, where are they, and how do they get home?
As a former high school choir kid, I should have understood the significance of the title right off. In music, coda is a term that translates to “go to the mark.” It’s used to tell musicians/singers to go back to a specific place in the score and play from there to the end. Once I made the connection to the musical term, it was clear to me Knapp had used the coda in a masterful way. It was really neat to see music applied to fiction in this particular context.
I mentioned this is horror. A lot of that is psychological. The “town” where the characters end up looks like something out of an abandoned western movie set. It’s unsettling at least and downright terrifying at worst. Scenes from the characters’ lives are replayed in great, and sometimes gory, detail. It’s all designed to test and unhinge them. Why? I won’t spoil, but let’s just say there’s a greater purpose here, and it’s quite a threatening one.
A fair warning: not all the horror is psychological. There are three “hounds” who follow our characters around. They are hulking beasts with black eyes and teeth that don’t respond to gunshots in a preferable way (aka, they get back up). A few characters meet gruesome ends, so if you’re stomach turns easily, be prepared to stick your fingers in your ears and “lalalala” a bit.
Despite the psychological and gory elements, which are things I often avoid, I really did enjoy this. There were a few moments that got to me, but the greater mystery behind the town and the characters kept me turning pages. I would recommend this to horror fans who don’t mind blood. There’s a definite supernatural element, as well. So, if that’s your thing, take a trip to the town and have your wits tested…if you dare.
Keith Knapp is the author of the novels \”Coda,\” \”Moonlight\” and numerous short stories including \”Battalion\” and \”The Cat on Alpine Road.\” Between the day he discovered writing and now, he has played the drums in more bands than he can remember, went to film school in Chicago and has taken up residence in Hawai’i, Missouri, California and Illinois. He loves cats, and if there isn’t always one around he starts to go a little crazy.
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