The Blue Heron by Gene O’Neill
This year’s Bram Stoker Award for superior achievement in long fiction went to Gene O’Neill for The Blue Heron. Dark Regions Press originally printed a mere 13 signed copies of the novella-length work, but plans to issue a trade paperback edition this year. A bit of research on the internet also suggests that it was briefly available as an e-book on the author’s own website or Facebook page, but that no longer appears to be the case.
I’m frankly puzzled by the Stoker win. The Blue Heron is a decent mystery/espionage story, but it’s not a horror story, even if one uses a very broad definition of the term “horror” to include thrillers or violent crime stories. In addition, the plot is predictable and the writing has significant problems. This isn’t the first time I’ve disagreed with the members of the Horror Writers Association, which votes on the awards, and it probably won’t be the last.
The premise of The Blue Heron is promising. Six marines were sent to a particular village in Vietnam based on intelligence that it was an ammunition store, with the order that they destroy the ammunition. One of the marines makes a tragic error, and Garcia, another of the men, reacts with religiously fueled anger in his denunciation of the entire unit. The marines complete their mission and return to base with only one of them wounded, and having dealt out a mere two deaths of their own. But Garcia won’t be convinced that the one civilian death was unfortunate but acceptable collateral damage; as far as he’s concerned, it’s murder. Just before the morphine he’s been administered for his wound causes him to lose consciousness, Garcia says that he will make sure that they all pay dearly for what they have done.
Fifty years later, the marines start dying. The only clue to their deaths, which are accomplished with considerable professionalism, is that an origami blue heron is left by each man’s body — a bird that they saw in that village all those years ago. The narrator of the tale is one of the men, now mostly retired from a career with the CIA. He is approached by another of the men, Joey Hotsko, whom he had believed to be dead; but his death was faked so that Hotsko could become a member of an organization that works in even deeper shadows than the CIA does, known only as the Association. Together, they use Hotsko’s connections to try to find Garcia, convinced that he is the one behind the killings.
The story progresses to a solution that any experienced mystery reader will have seen coming from at least halfway through the tale. That doesn’t make the reading less enjoyable, though; the plot is fairly well constructed. But the writing detracts from the storytelling. There are sentence fragments, run-on sentences, changes in verb tense in the middle of a paragraph, clumsy dialogue in which one character tells another what he already knows so that the reader can know it, too, and other errors that a good writer should have fixed and a good editor caught if the writer didn’t.
I do not know if this problem is endemic to the horror field, or particular to small presses, or has some other origin, but this is the second work I’ve read in recent weeks in which the writing distracted me from able plotting. It’s a shame. And it’s something that the field should pay attention to lest the current increased interest in horror evaporate just as it did a few decades ago.