Review by Bryan Cebulski (@BryanOnion)
L. Marie Wood’s Crescendo: Welcome Home, Death Awaits is a “spiral into insanity” story. Its protagonist James is dealing with an ancestral curse, either paranormal affliction or mental illness (or both). He is wracked with paranoia and instability since the strange death of his best friend Peter’s wife, Susan, with whom he had a longstanding affair. James’ wife, Andrea, is caring but increasingly fearful of James’ volatile behavior. As if this were not enough, after revealing the truth to Peter, who knew all along but kept his feelings under close guard, Peter becomes bitter and vengeful toward James. Soap opera exchanges of allegiances and resentment occur between the three in the novel’s more grounded plotline. Meanwhile, James is experiencing increasingly horrific, gory flashbacks from his father’s past and seeing disturbed visions of what may be an inescapable destiny.
My view of Crescendo is that it is A) well-written insofar as good prose is concerned, but B) could have been about 50 pages long. I had to skim a great deal of this novel simply because very little actually happens for a great deal of it. The story doesn’t so much progress as go back and forth, between those chaotic bloody passages and the soap opera love triangle, and little of substance develops between the two until the very end.
The characters are just flat, which wouldn’t have been a problem if, again, the novel had been significantly shorter. Peter, in particular, has quasi-sympathetic motivations but becomes something of a cartoon villain in his actions. Andrea doesn’t really do much but offer a connection through which the two men tug-o-war, more plot device than character. James has the most backstory, but not much sense of personality. He’s more of an onlooker, someone to whom things happen rather than someone who makes things happen.
I really enjoyed the establishment of the plot in Crescendo. The mystery of what the hell is going on with James is compelling, his visions are creepy, and the suburban erotic problems just enough of a complementary conflict to James’ insanity that it works. I just don’t think it was executed as well as it might have been. The novel just goes on and on without much plot development. Bits and pieces of the secret behind James’ curse-thing are revealed, when they could have been dropped in much more quick succession and gained a lot more plot momentum as a result. It felt like L. Marie Wood was uncertain about how to proceed with the novel, perhaps unconfident in making a huge shift in the story’s rhythm, and so kept things going pretty much on a flat repeat till the finale.
The writing is again quite good, repetitious though it may be. About the first 25-30% of the novel I was wholly absorbed. Shame then that it lost me from there, made it a struggle to proceed. Not enough changed. We started with marital strife and creepy visions and continued to get marital strife and creepy visions. These plotlines didn’t interweave and complicate. Rather, it was James going back and forth between being sympathetic and losing his mind, some show of Andrea being worried, and Peter being broody and violently resentful of James. Too much of the novel just ran with this cycle of moods and thought bubbles with minimal progress toward anything.
I’d love to check out L. Marie Wood’s short fiction (in fact, her piece in the black horror fiction anthology Dark Dreams, edited by Brandon Massey, is fantastic), because when this novel was superb only when it didn’t overstay its welcome. It just didn’t bring enough to keep my attention for a full length novel.