"Douglas Clegg has become the new star in horror fiction, and The Hour Before Dark is his best and most exciting novel to date. This is pure imagination, and it is wearing speed skates."-Peter Straub, author of Ghost Story and, with Stephen King, The Talisman
"...An eerie psychological tale of supernatural horror that builds suspense gradually as the characters slowly peel back the layers of their past and face the terrors of their shared childhood. Clegg approaches horror with a stark and vital simplicity that is utterly convincing. Fans of Stephen King and Dean Koontz will appreciate this atmospheric gem."-Library Journal
"Suspenseful and relentlessly spooky, told in economical prose yet peopled by characters as fully realized as one’s own blood kin, this is at once the most artful and most mainstream tale yet from one of horror’s brightest lights."-Publishers Weekly Starred Review
"... A dark,psychologically astute novel that pushes beyond the horror genre and into raw suspense...The Hour Before Dark is a powerful and deeply engaging novel of disturbance and redemption...highly recommended to any reader who enjoys Stephen King, Dean Koontz, or Pat Conroy."-The BookReporter
"In his finest novel to date, Clegg establishes himself firmly as one of the leading authors in the horror genre...Hold onto your chair; The Hour Before Dark is a powerhouse of a read. -Cemetery Dance Magazine
"Clegg is the best horror writer of the post-Stephen King generation."—Bentley Little, author of The Store, The Policy, and The Haunted
"Clegg's stories can chill the spine so effectively that the reader should keep paramedics on standby."-Dean Koontz author of Watchers and 77 Shadow Street
"Douglas Clegg knows exactly what scares us, and he knows just how to twist those fears into hair-raising chills..."-Tess Gerritsen, New York Times bestselling author of the Rizzoli & Isles series
“Do you want to play the Dark Game?”
“What are you afraid of?”
The rules for the Dark Game are simple:
First, you need to close your eyes. Do not open them. If necessary, you can use a blindfold. In fact, because kids usually can’t keep their eyes closed, blindfolds are recommended.
Second, you need to stay very still for a long time and block out all noise, except for the voice of the chosen master of the Dark Game. You must also block out all smell and all touch, except for the others whose hands you’re holding. You have to join hands and form a circle. But block out everything you can.
Except the voice of the master of the Dark Game.
Third, someone has to be in control of where the Dark Game goes. To recite the litany that begins it. To direct your mind into the game.
And lastly, you must never play the Dark Game once it’s dark outside.
At night, it becomes too real. You lose control of it. You can’t stop it after dark.
You must start the game in the hour before dark, sometimes called the Magic Hour.
You must stop playing when night falls. Because that’s when it changes.
Sometimes, you can’t get out of the Dark Game once the dark comes.
It becomes real then.
It takes you over.
On the other side of the door, the voice again: “Don’t be afraid."
The door swings wide, and from outside, an eternal twilight, a shadow sweeps in.
“I am here."
“I won’t play the Dark Game,” I whisper.
“Too late. You can’t stop playing it.”
I’ve come to believe that absolute evil has a human face.
And absolute innocence is the brother of evil.
I was once innocent, but then I began playing that game.
When I was nine, I went wandering on a chilly early evening.
My father owned a vast property called Hawthorn, which included a house, some woods, and a smokehouse, as well as a stream and a duck pond. It seemed like an endless world to me then.
A man found me in the woods—a man whose face I have somehow erased from my memory as part of a feverish week that vanished for me as a child.
He told me that I had blood on my face. He washed it off in an ice-cold stream, splashing it all over my forehead and hands. I felt as if I’d been bitten by mosquitoes -- even in the middle of winter.
He walked me through the night-smitten woods until we approached the back of my home.
It was a moment out of time that I could not place within my other memories—why I had wandered, or why I had what might’ve been blood on my face, or even the face of the man who had washed blood from me.
That was childhood; it ended; I closed its door; I grew up and moved away.
Many years later, when he was in his fifties and I was in my late twenties, my father wandered at twilight, and opened the door to a mystery.
It attacked with the ferocity of a wild animal.
At the point my father, Gordie Raglan, entered the smokehouse, his life was nearly over.
Even if you’d told him that, it probably wouldn’t have stopped him.
Knowing my father, he probably had been thinking about the Boston Celtics and if they were going to kick any ass that winter. Or whether he was going to have shepherd’s pie without peas for supper when he got back. Or how he was going to repair the half-rotted roof of the cabin down by the duck pond when he knew he should just let the cabin fall apart.
He was a guy who was fairly transparent in his thinking and, though smart, was a simple man. He liked his world to be orderly.
He always looked to me—in photographs and my childhood memories—like a solid structure. A man created for purpose, duty, and care. Even at his worst (he had his terrible days, as all fathers will), he seemed a moral compass within a world spun out of control.
He liked the people around him to be somewhat predictable, which is no doubt why he remained on Burnley Island most of his life. His main loves were, in fact, the Boston Celtics, what was for supper, home repairs, and his daughter’s two dogs, which, by right of whose house they lived in, were his as well. They were rescued greyhounds named for Welsh legend (Mab and Madoc) and might’ve met terrible fates if he and my sister, Brooke, hadn’t gone over to the racetrack in Rhode Island a few years previous to grab two pups that weren’t quite right for racing.
Perhaps all he thought about was what was bringing him out in the storm in the first place. There were, at the time, a thousand guesses for this, but none of them got near the mark.
He hadn’t called the dogs. This was unusual for him. He might go out to see who was in the driveway or what a certain noise had been, but he nearly always called the greyhounds out when he did that.
Not that he went out often at twilight or most evenings. Not that Mab and Madoc would’ve gone with him—those dogs dreaded foul weather as much as they did the local veterinarian’s office.
But still, he would’ve called them. If he had, Brooke would’ve known he was leaving. She was at the other end of the house—down the boxcar hallways that led like a puzzle from one room to another without end, built that way by some ancient Raglan with a bizarre sense that every room should open on another room. Brooke was down in what was called the second Great Room, with the dogs at her feet. Reading a mystery novel, halfway falling asleep, having been up most of the previous night.
That afternoon, Gordie Raglan had drunk half a mug of hot cocoa before he left the house. He had a fondness in November for comfort foods—chicken soup, warm cocoa, and shepherd’s pie. Cocoa was his favorite. He loved it more laced with a bit of bourbon, but this particular night there was nary a drop in the house.
He no doubt had chewed gum as he headed for the front door—Wrigley’s Spearmint or Big Red, either one could be his favorite of the day. He wore his funny red cap that once belonged to one of his sons, but to which he had become attached over the past several years. He drew on a parka that he’d received as a present the previous Christmas. There were boots by the door, but he chose to wear his scuffed, ten-year-worn Oxfords. It was his storm outfit. No umbrella. Dad didn’t believe in umbrellas.
The cap made him look youthful or silly, depending upon who was asked about it. His peppered gray hair no doubt stuck out of its sides. My father was generally late with haircuts once November had begun, unless his daughter had been after him about it.
He rarely left the house after three or four in the afternoon anymore, unless something needed immediate attention around the grounds of his home.
But something got him outside, during the storm.
Barely light out , the fury of the storm brought an early veil of darkness with it.
Something made him put down the mug, slip on his shoes, leaving them untied as he went out the front door of his home. He had a flashlight with him. Around the house, he always kept a flashlight by his side, as much as he kept the kerosene spot heater in whichever room he chose to occupy.
Only a man as stubborn as Gordie Raglan would’ve traipsed out in the worst storm of November to do some mysterious errand in what amounted to a rundown stone shelter that had been locked up for years.
It had been a tempest out at sea, but on the island it was a rough kind of magic—a Nor’easter blowing down across the bogs and ponds and the slips and beaches, through the woods with their sheltering pines, with all the beauty that a terrific storm brings—the overly dramatic light of creation itself swirling through that island.
(I had loved the winter storms when I was a boy. I had gone out into them sometimes and held out my arms—imagine a boy of ten doing that—as if it were my own magic power that brought the wind and rain.)
This particular night the rain was incessant.
The lightning, a constant flashbulb in the eyes. Thunder roared overhead like drunken Nordic gods.
He must’ve been swearing under his breath, given his limp and what he had always called the “old pain,” doubly frustrated, for at one point his left shoe went into the mud, deep.
He left it there, a few feet from the entrance to the smokehouse.
The smokehouse itself was hardly much of a shelter. It was a small one-room stone house that had at one time been the place where meat was hung to smoke and dry. It had been kept locked for years.
He had the key with him.
He would not have been considered tall by any stretch of the imagination, but there was something in his broad shoulders and barrel chest that indicated a large, imposing figure.
Upon entering the small room, he no doubt smelled the old smoky odor and the pungent stink of earth in the air. Behind him -- and I'm guessing -- the door slid shut, creaking with the wind that howled outside.
He spun around, annoyed.
The rain had been coming down in sheets for nearly an hour. He directed the flashlight’s beam to the small, thick square of glass that was the only window. The sky darkened with clouds and a somber grayness. The door banged back and forth briefly, then shut again. Branches scraped the low rooftop.
He glanced back into the darkness, perhaps.
Then up—the ceiling, highest at about six feet, was arched.
He looked back at the door and its window.
The square of light through its glass.
Twilight outside. Rain began hitting the window.
He shot the flashlight beam around the ceiling. He glanced down along the rough stone walk.
He might have heard what would be a clash of metal, like a knife being sharpened on stone.