Uptight perfectionist Beth is having a very bad time. After a fitful night’s sleep, she learns that her young daughter has answered the door to the eponymous man with a blue hat who has one message – he’s coming for Beth. She then begins to spawn awful, murderous thoughts towards her child, and the people of her sleepy New England town also start to become aggressive as insomnia takes hold of the population. As the blame for everyone’s madness turns on her, Beth must remember what she did to start it all off, and she realises she must pay a terrible price to restore any peace to the community.
Oh, and there’s a shrunken head with weirdly seductive powers.
Now, let’s be clear, the writing style will either pull you along with it, or you’ll close the story in utter frustration. The first chapter is initially off-putting, especially if you’re used to the more streamlined styles of modern writers. Apologies for the generalisation there but this is worth bearing in mind.
However, after the initial culture shock, it becomes far more readable from then on. If you can survive reams of passive sentences, you will also have to be able to tolerate being trapped in the head of a main character who is self-righteous, petty, shrill, shallow, and pretty much everything you wouldn’t want to be and would run a mile from. With that in mind, watching her break down is fascinating. There’s considerable enjoyment to be had by hoping something really awful will eventually happen to her. It certainly kept us reading. Yes, she’s got some sympathetic aspects and the Man with the Blue Hat is perhaps pushing her to be more terrible than she would normally be. Still, anything pleasant about her is regularly drowned out by the suffocating miasma of her many, many hateful thoughts.
But, the prose also has buckets of energy. A gruesome and exciting storyline kept us reading on without complaining too much, and there are some brilliantly arresting moments to look out for. The shrunken head’s first appearance will slink around in your mind for days afterwards, and the dreadful effects of insomnia and devilish suggestion on the hapless, gossipy town are great fun to read. By fun we obviously mean ‘horrific events happening to unwitting innocent characters’, which we love on the Eyeball as much as the next Stephen King fan. As much as we hated the main character, reading events from her perspective felt like we were also being infected by the madness consuming the town, and from that angle the story was very effectively executed. Even so, it’s rather unsatisfying that Beth herself has less to do with the very final outcome, beyond efforts to resist the hideous urges taking hold of her. Perhaps that makes this more of a gothic novel.
So while it’s initially overwritten, and splashed with trite sentences here, and batters you with a breathlessly shrill (but surprisingly enjoyable) main character, at its gristly heart this is a really good story that we were happy to stick with until the bitter end. We simply couldn’t look away until the mystery had been revealed and the guilty parties justly, or perhaps, unjustly, dealt with. It challenged our perspective on what makes a satisfying story, and that’s a good thing. Because, dear Eyeballers, it is very clear that Beth is going crazy, and you’re stuck in there with her. To get through the crazy, you’ve gotta deal with it too.
So read Man with the Blue Hat with an extremely open mind, and you’ll get a glimpse of something truly extraordinary. The book rattles along at an involving pace – although some more editing to cut back a little more really wouldn’t hurt – and you will get angry, pleased, angry again and ultimately, glad you gave it a try. Fair warning though. On completion of the story, you may well need to soak Beth from your brain with a really liberal dose of vodka. Does that make her a strong character? Is it a good story? Its sheer relentlessness will compel you to complete it.
The Haunted Eyeball was given a free review copy.
Also of interest
Coming on 20th June 2013: Man With the Blue Hat Author Interview with Wendy Potocki.