TOYS IN THE ATTIC by Daniel Ransom, pseudonym of the late Ed Gorman, is a perfect example of why you shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. Published in 1986, the cover of the original mass market edition from Zebra is … well, not great. A boy, with vaguely glowing eyes, sits in darkness with a giant toy solider that looks a lot like a nutcracker.
Bad cover art, but it doesn’t take more than a few pages to realize this is a well written novel that’s going somewhere any self-respecting horror fan should be eager to follow.
The premise of the novel: a very old orphanage in a secluded small town seems to be cursed. Children have been disappearing or dying in accidents at the place for many years, and of course, since they are orphans, no one ever made too much noise about it. The orphanage is run by a corrupt family that pulls all the strings in town. The Stockbridge family has town politicians and law enforcement in a stranglehold, living in fear of their jobs if they dare do anything in defiance of the family’s patriarch, Raymond Stockbridge.
It just so happens that the orphanage is located near a swamp into which a chemical plant has been dumping dangerous chemicals for quite some time. The story opens as one of the main boys in the book, Brian, hears the voice of his recently deceased friend calling him to the swamp late at night. And so the trouble begins.
Two of the book’s main characters are a female sheriff, Diane, who’s fairly new to the job so not at all under the thumb of Stockbridge, and the town’s former sheriff, John, who was asked to retire because he started asking the wrong questions after the death of an orphan a few years back. Now, as Diane digs into the latest incident at the orphanage, she detects the pattern and contacts the former sheriff. He’s in a bad place personally: now a complete drunk, ridden with guilt, who’s just about given up. They join forces and the fun begins. The small town corruption works its way through the novel nicely, putting up roadblocks for the investigation at every turn. It turns out there are supernatural forces at work which are never fully explained, but that was okay with me because the story was just so fun to read. There are some passages in the book that were not only surprisingly honest about the human condition, but tender, with genuine depth. That said, this was not a “literary” horror novel, nor do I believe it was meant to be anything other than sheer entertainment.
For a true 1980s horror fan, this book fires on all pistons. It does lean heavily on a few horror clichés, but Ed Gorman knows what he’s doing here, so it all worked for me just fine. The novel moved along at a good clip, with no dull moments, and was completely devoid of self-indulgent artistry; the story never takes itself so seriously that you have to stop enjoying yourself. Good writing, excellent pacing, and sympathetic characters winding through a plot that ticks all the boxes of my favorite horror tropes – along with a couple of nice twists – makes TOYS IN THE ATTIC a recommended read.