King of the Dead
by Joseph Nassise
2012 Tor Publications
I described Eyes to See—the first book of Joseph Nassise’s “Jeremiah Hunt Chronicles”—as a travelogue of the macabre. In that story, the Bram Stoker-nominated author set his protagonist’s horrifying encounter with a shape-shifting specter in the city of Boston. In doing so, he created a map of terrifying encounters set in some of Boston’s most famous areas. In Nassise’s follow-up, King of the Dead, he takes his readers down south to sweltering New Orleans. The change-of-scenery sets the stage for another emotional journey into the terrifying world of mighty supernatural evil.
Returning for another round is hardboiled supernatural investigator Jeremiah Hunt, now a fugitive on the run. Readers may remember that Hunt is blind—the price for dealing with a corrupt shaman—but gifted with the ability to see ghosts and other supernatural entities. Hunt’s sardonic view of the world remains intact, especially as the supernatural world continues to challenge his already tentative grasp on his life. Back at his side are his companions Denise Clearwater, a master of dark arts, and Dmitri Alexandrov, a Russian giant who can transform into a ferocious polar bear at the first sign of danger. The trio find themselves in the middle of a plague besieging New Orleans, the victims inexplicably paralyzed in a catatonic state.
As Hunt observes, New Orleans is an entire city haunted by the victims of Hurricane Katrina, the emotional residue of the disaster as palpable as the region’s oppressive humidity. Nassise capitalizes on the atmosphere, as well as the sociopolitical state of the ruined city and its neglected citizens. The metaphor is a powerful statement on the fragility of a city’s populous when their trusted leaders have turned their backs. Nassise presents the devastated city as a vast graveyard where terrifying entities have taken up residence. The progenitors of the plague are appropriately known as Sorrows, but Hunt finds out these terrifying apparitions aren’t the worst problem they will encounter.
Nassise keeps the pace fluid, the narrative moving along at the breakneck speed of a blockbuster action film. Yet his style doesn’t sacrifice the requisite character development or emotional impact that satisfied fans of the first installment. It’s an admirable balance, one that keeps the story urgent for our heroes, and compelling for readers. The heart is, after all, in the relationship dynamics shared between our three main characters, facing an enemy that threatens to break up their surrogate family and swallow a city whole.
King of the Dead is a wholly satisfying second entry in this series. Nassise’s components—captivating new territory, larger stakes, and scarier monsters—pay off in huge dividends as the author once again seamlessly blends fantasy, horror, and crime thriller. The setting of a mourning Big Easy as one immense haunted place is a brilliant allegory, and a potent way to explore the author’s lofty themes. Nassise’s greatest weapon, however, is the poignancy of love united against an ostensibly unstoppable foe, one poisoning the air of a desperately gasping city.