Publisher: Grey Matter Press
Length: 278 Pages
Release Date: March 17, 2016
Review copy provided by publisher
Longtime readers of The Horror Bookshelf know that I am a huge fan of Grey Matter Press and the stellar anthologies they have released over the years. So when I heard that they were branching out into novels and other formats, I was ecstatic! The first novel to be released under the Grey Matter Press banner is John C. Foster’s Mister White, a continuation of his short story that was featured in Dark Visions – Volume 2. When I came across the short story version of Mister White, I was hooked. I am pleased to write that the novel version amplifies the power of the original short story and adds even more mystery to the legend of Mister White.
Foster’s story opens with the line “Who is Mister White?” which is the last thing Abel hears on a static-filled phone conversation that leaves him shaken. Later that evening, Abel is on his way to a clandestine meeting in a graveyard—seriously, how creepy is that?!—when he hears the same question over and over again: “Abel? Sin sie das?” It sets his hair on edge and when he arrives at the meeting place, what he sees sets in motion a series of events that will fracture his sanity and place everyone around him in danger.
Lewis is watching a video of his fellow operative Abel torturing himself in order to survive a bizarre and hellish prison. Abel is forced to inflict this punishment on himself by an entity known only as “The Voice”. The commands are very bizarre and this is just one of the many scenes that stood out while reading Mister White. The psychological torture employed here is bizarre and frightening because you don’t know what to expect next. Not only does this scene unnerve readers, it also causes Lewis extreme paranoia while he is holed up in his study miles away, checking his security footage. As he watches this unfold, he gets a call from Bierce, the leader of all the agents and tells him about the disturbing footage. Once he mentions there was a name – Mister White – Bierce tells him he is beyond sanction and to get out of there right now. Lewis realizes he has made a grave error and initiates a protocol to help ensure his family’s safety as he is now left all alone with no resources to make it back to his family to protect them from the hell that is unleashed.
The truth is, I really struggled with the review for this novel, which is unlike anything I have ever read. How many times can you say something is brilliant? Because make no mistake about it, that’s what Mister White is. The creation of Mister White the character is the sort of thing I would imagine a horror writer would kill for – the chance to create an iconic monster. What makes Mister White so terrifying is the fact that we don’t really know for certain exactly who or what he is. He is mentioned in hushed tones and never by name due to his reputation. What readers will find out much like I did when I read it, is speaking his name is a very bad idea and if you ever cross his path, you’ll regret it. He is a legendary figure, someone who strikes fear into the hearts of operatives who deal with deadly situations on a daily basis in a career that calls for nerves of steel.
Not only does Foster do an excellent job breathing life into one of the scariest supernatural forces I have ever encountered, he builds an incredibly fascinating mythology and history around Mister White. There are a few scenes that seem to indicate one of the characters in this novel have at least some knowledge of Mister White’s origins. I don’t want to get too much into the details of that as it is part of the fun of the novel, but it leaves ample room for more stories. I am the type of reader who is often torn between wanting to know every detail about a book and having some mystery left behind, and Foster does a great job of leaving just enough mystery to keep readers intrigued. My imagination ran wild thinking about where Mister White came from, what his goals are, how he got mixed up in the world of espionage and a variety of other questions that popped up while reading. Mister White does a great job blending the occult with tinges of bizarre real-life programs in the intelligence world. One of the few things that is known about Mister White, is that he feeds off the fear of those he chooses to hunt down. Not only does it sustain him, but he derives enjoyment from it and will often toy with his victims. He is able to listen for his name and travel to anyone who mentions his name to attack them. Besides the mysteriousness of his origins, what makes Mister White such a great character is his unpredictability. With a lot of horror novels, you know what to expect whether it is a sadistic killer on the loose, a monster, or some other evil unleashed on the world. With Mister White, his motivations are a mystery. Foster does a masterful job building tension in this novel and when Mister White finally makes his grand entrance it is incredible.
Foster’s characterization is excellent and this cast of flawed characters leap off the page. Each character has a complex history and it’s clear early in the story that this isn’t your stereotypical squeaky clean family, they have secrets from each other. When we first meet Lewis, he is an operative who has been out of the game for quite some time. A family man who went from doing field work to more schmoozing with delegates and other members of the Russian elite that are of interest to the CIA. However, after years of not being in the field, his old training springs to the forefront of his mind and his only goal is survival once he realizes he is in danger. The tactics and logistics are fresh in his mind, but it takes a little while for his body to get used to the exhaustion of being on the run. His family is vaguely aware of his career, but they do not know the full extent of his past. His wife Cat has an affair to help push away the loneliness of constantly being separated from her husband and the distance and career choices that makes him appear to be preoccupied. There is a great section that talks about Cat’s life and how she got to where she was. Lewis is once again overseas without her and their only child, Hedde, is in high school. Her relationship with Hedde is now guarded when it used to be open. The loneliness she feels drives her to consult from home instead of going into the office and she has even taken up day drinking to help numb the pain.
Hedde is an interesting character and one of my favorites. She is a bit of an outcast and described by classmates as being addicted to drugs or “Most Likely To Become A Serial Killer”. She wears outdated clothes and while classmates tease her by calling her “Wednesday Addams” and “Lizzie Borden”, that doesn’t keep them from asking her to use witchcraft to solve their problems. Without giving too much away about Hedde, there are hints throughout the novel that she is far from your average teenager. I give Hedde credit, she is a hell of a lot braver than I would be if I were facing a supernatural entity hellbent on destroying my family. She does show fear, but she pushes through that in an effort to combat the sinister Mister White. Bierce is a fascinating character as well and I honestly thought for a while that he could be Mister White based on his description. He is completely hairless and has such a pale complexion that he seems white. As you read Mister White, readers will learn that Bierce has a very interesting connection to Mister White and his shadowy involvement with the government.
There is a sense of isolation that not only amplifies the more terrifying scenes of this novel, but informs the characters personalities as well. It seems like each member of the family has adapted the sort of intelligence credo of distancing yourself from others and severing emotional ties to protect themselves from potential traumas. It is interesting to see a group of people who deal with the very real threat of danger on a daily basis try to use their training and protocols against a force that simply cannot be stopped. Lewis instituted a protocol list for his family years ago, which shows he was prepared for something like this to happen as soon as he started a family with Cat. They are a fractured family coming apart at the seams, but this event forces them to try to band together even though they are separated from each other with multiple continents between them.
Foster manages to craft a dark atmosphere that highlights the suspense and dread that lurks on every page. There is no cheap jump scares here, each scene is well thought out and deliberate. One of my favorite scenes was the discovery of a bizarre coffin connected to Mister White and a creepy candlestick phone. The scene with these objects is absolutely brilliant. It takes a lot to truly unnerve me and something about these scenes, though devoid of any supernatural presence or violence, really rattled me. Foster manages to catch that darkness and distill it into potent blasts of fear that make for a truly frightening read.
Foster uses razor-sharp prose to draw readers in and can amaze with even a single line, like this one that describes an accident early in the novel “A two-by-four had crashed through the windshield like a spear, impaling the driver through his mouth and penetrating out the back of his skull, exploding like a brain, blood and bone grenade, until the wood lodged itself in the rear window”. While Mister White isn’t overly gory, there are a few blood-soaked scenes that he uses sparingly and effectively with sentences similar to this one.
It’s really hard to talk about Mister White without spoiling the novel and its many twists and turns that frankly are what make this such a standout novel. Foster weaves in so many bizarre and frightening moments that it’s jarring to the senses, but in the best possible way. Mister White is a truly exceptional novel that is a breath of fresh air for the horror genre and honestly, one of the best novels I have read this year. I honestly think Mister White is worth of being classified as a modern classic and I am sure this novel will have a lasting legacy. It blurs the lines between numerous genres and is a novel that I could honestly see myself re-reading multiple times. If you are a fan of any type of dark fiction, do yourself a favor and snag a copy of this immediately. The last 40 or so pages rocket by and reach a stunning conclusion unlike anything I have ever read. I loved this novel and I can’t wait to read what Foster has in store for us all next!