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Connolly's stylish latest inflicts abject horror

| Saturday, Jan. 19, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

REVIEW

On the list of qualities that make a horror novel worth reading, stylish prose is near the bottom. Horror, after all, is supposed to be scary, and, in the midst of abject terror, even the most sensitive reader is unlikely to marvel for long at a delicate turn of phrase.

Still, the presence of the right word can make all the difference to a good scare, as proven again and again in “The Wrath of Angels,” the latest from John Connolly, a writer who has the advantage of a stylist's ear to go with an eye for the absolute nastiest gory detail, and uses both to great effect in his novels about a tortured detective named Charlie “Bird” Parker.

The new book in the series follows more than a dozen characters — some in thrall to demons or tribal gods, including Parker's multibook nemesis, Brightwell, who returns as a terrifying mute boy — through a mystery that spans decades. In 2001, two hunters in the Maine woods come across a plane crash in a creepy part of the forest. It's empty of people but full of money, and a list of names, and the forest itself seems to want the crash to stay hidden.

“They used their hunting knives to hack at the ivy,” Connolly writes. “It came away reluctantly, coating their gloves with a sticky residue that gave off a sharp, caustic odor. Paul got some of it on his exposed forearm, and he would carry the burn scar that it left until the day he took his own life.”

Naturally, the list turns out to be the more valuable discovery by far — a register of people who've struck bargains with a group of businesspeople who run ... well, pretty much everything.

“The Wrath of Angels” isn't quite the height of the series — the first, “Every Dead Thing,” is still the best. There are moments when Connolly appears to tire of his trademark character, and others where stylistic tics work against him. Nobody carries a knife in a Connolly novel, always a “blade,” and he seems to be having a revolting simile contest with himself. (Best/worst: “her ruined face and that dead eye embedded in it like a bubble of fat on barely cooked meat.”) Either you'll recoil from Connolly's occasional affectations, or you'll guiltily enjoy them.

With this latest installment in the series, Connolly is dropping hints about what sounds like a grand finale. Charlie's quarry are people who (sometimes unwittingly) host supernatural beings that lie dormant until the most opportune moment, making the books an “Exorcist”-meets-”Manchurian Candidate” guessing game on the subject of who, exactly, is demon-possessed. Between the detailed character sketches and the intricate puzzles, it's the best kind of book for long winter nights.

Sam Thielman is a staff writer for Newsday.

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