Fantastic Reviews - Horror / Dark Fantasy Book Review
cover of Prodigal Prodigal by Melanie Tem

Dell Books (Abyss horror line)
copyright 1991
377 pages

Book read in September 2001

Rating: 4/10  (Not Recommended, But Not Bad)

Review by Aaron Hughes

       The first Melanie Tem story I ever read was a powerful novelette called "Jenny", about a young woman haunted by the memory of her dead sister, which appeared in the mid-December 1993 issue of Asimov's Science Fiction magazine.  I enjoyed this story so much that I determined to read a Melanie Tem novel and, by golly, only eight years later I have.

       Prodigal was Melanie Tem's first novel, and won a Bram Stoker award for best first novel in 1992.  (The awards are given by The Horror Writers of America for work in dark fantasy and horror).  From the cover I thought this would be a ghost story very similar to "Jenny" (the back cover begins, "Her brother Ethan is dead. Then why does he visit...?"), but the premise turns out to be quite different.

       At eleven years old, Lucy Brill is troubled and unhappy.  Her older brother Ethan was also troubled and unhappy, then he disappeared and is now presumed dead.  Her older sister Rae is also troubled and unhappy, and before long she disappears as well.  Lucy often sees visions of Ethan and Rae.  She fears that she is next in line for whatever fate has claimed them, and is terrified at the thought that her parents are powerless to protect her.

       Lucy is a well-presented protagonist.  She convincingly suffers from all of the confusion and conflicting emotions of a young woman entering puberty.  She is a strong enough character that it is forgivable that we never get to know any of the other characters very well.

       The story, however, does not work.  The main problem is that the pacing is all off.  For some 200 pages, Lucy tries to come to grips with the awful realization that parents can't always keep their children safe.  Tem tries to hold our interest through these long, introspective passages with brief glimpses of Ethan and Rae.  These brief appearances have no impact, however, because in the very first scene in the book, Ethan appeared in Lucy's room and began to strangle her.  Having already seen Ethan close up, we are not impressed when Lucy spots him or Rae through a window or lurking in the shadows.  The strangling scene drew us in at the outset, but ultimately thwarts Tem's efforts to build tension through the first half of the novel.

       The story begins in earnest when Lucy begins seeing Jerry Johnston, the therapist who tried to help both Ethan and Rae.  Johnston clearly knows more about their disappearances than he lets on, and Lucy has ample reason to distrust him.  Instead, she becomes greatly attached to him.  Lucy's devotion to Johnston drives the entire second half of the novel, yet Tem doesn't show us how it came about.  By the time Lucy's attachment to Johnston is locked in place, the only interaction we have seen between them is a single group therapy session, presented in seven pages.  Since Johnston is portrayed as a pretty creepy guy throughout, and Lucy has every reason to link him to the death and disappearance of her brother and sister, Lucy's sudden trust in him is extremely unconvincing.

       As a suspense story, the novel falls flat.  Lucy consistently places herself at risk despite repeated warnings.  Perhaps this is because she is young and impulsive; perhaps she is unable to control her own actions. Whatever the reason, it is not very interesting to follow a character who is in danger only because she does nothing to avoid it.  The hidden evil that is finally revealed is interesting, but also disappointing because it doesn't match Tem's build-up.  Much to my annoyance, it does not adequately explain Ethan's and Rae's apparitions throughout the first half of the novel (including why Ethan tried to strangle Lucy in the opening scene), or many of the other strange occurrences that Lucy experienced.

       I enjoy Melanie Tem's prose, so I intend to give her a second chance some time, but I did not find Prodigal successful.
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Copyright 2001 Aaron Hughes

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Links to webpages about Melanie Tem :
The Melanie Tem & Steve Rasnic Tem Web Page
Melanie Tem - Wikipedia

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 27 December 2010