Testing the Prisoner
Firebringer Press, 194 pp.
I won’t beat around the bush, I’ll come right out and say it: I enjoyed about half of this book. It started off strong. The main character, Daniel Masenda, is the mayor of a small town in Virginia and has a pretty good life. He also has a troubled past. Abandoned by his father at an early age, he was raised by his mother who vented her fears and worries on him, resulting in a mentally and physically abusive childhood. On the eve of Masenda’s mother’s death he begins to experience strange visions. Every mirror he looks in reflects a tortured and traumatized version of his current self and he keeps catching fleeting glimpses of a mysterious child when he’s out in public.
It’s pretty obvious, even to Masenda, that the child figure represents his innocence and the mirror images represent his traumatized psyche. And for the first half of the book we’re kept guessing as to whether or not our hero has lost his marbles. The tension continues building, including an encounter with a therapist who confirms that these haunting images are a manifestation of his troubled past and his need to forgive his mother. It makes for a pretty good psychological thriller as Masenda battles his inner demons, all while trying not to let his problems become a political liability.
And then, just over halfway through the novel, it’s revealed that the twisted reflection in the mirror is an actual demon that wants to claim Masenda’s soul. (Is that really the best motivation we can come up with for demons?) At this point all metaphor and allegory go out the window, to be replaced by a mind-numbingly cliched literalism. After this revelation the novel unfolds along the lines you expect it to. There is, of course, the requisite battle for Masenda’s soul and a reconciliation with the ghost of his mother. The only event in the latter half of the story that connected with me as a reader was an epilogue where Daniel starts to build a new relationship with his father. Yeah, I’ll take character-driven stories over the supernatural every day of the week.