Welcome to After Hours Investigations, just up the stairs. Be careful, one of the steps has a hex on it. Open 9-5, 9 p.m. to 5 a.m., its staff are ready for the most bizarre of paranormal investigations. When the sun goes does, the shades come out. Meet Evgeny Nightstalk, short but uncannily strong, with a nose for finding crime scenes. He lives alone in his bachelor apartment with his porn and pitcher plant. The truth be told, he’s less a pervert than an overgrown Boy Scout. And he has a flair for the reports that make up his agency’s casebooks, the heart of So Dark the Night by Cliff J. Burns. Nightstalk tells the story of their most difficult case, rapped off in staccato lines like the Underwood he is forced to use because of the electric field cast by his partner, Cassandra Zinnea.
Cassandra! “Effortlessly exotic, the life force radiating from her creating an intoxicating aura of grace and elegance and sensuality.” Nightstalk is helplessly in love with her. Who wouldn’t be? Not only beautiful, but brains to boot, stunning the cleverest of allies and enemies alike. No stranger to the night, and powerful in the ways of magic, one couldn’t have a better partner. But what could persuade her to work in a hole like this? Maybe it has something to do with the Old Man, the mysterious and unseen boss presumably inhabiting the office with the closed door.
Something evil is afoot as this novel opens with the live burning of a member of the Brethren of Purity, an ancient secret society dedicated to the guardianship and improvement of humanity. Night by night, Nightstalk and Zinnea pursue the case, interrupted only by off-hours indulgences. “A good, old-fashioned bucket of blood, frequented by bikers and cheap whores, with thugs and villains galore. I could tell right off the bat that it was my kind of watering hole.” The case really heats up. If the living dead warned me to stay away, I would. Not these two. Nightstalk and Zinnea crown a seemingly unending lineup of fantastic characters they engage along the way: an invisible mole, a timeless librarian, ‘Sherlock Holmes’, old knitting ladies who exact a price for knowledge, the list goes on. With their abettance, the pair dig their way to a horrible truth that perhaps no one can stop.
Not my usual taste, So Dark the Night is a raunchy occult thriller, written with an elegance and humour I couldn’t resist. It is unfortunate that Burns has never found a satisfactory relationship with the publishing establishment. His myopic posturing on the subject is surely burning any bridges he once hoped to cross. But no matter, fearless and dogged as Nightstalk, Burns has followed a path cut by pioneers like Doctorow and distributed his novel full-length on the web. Burns seems to be thriving in his new medium, with plans to release a podcast of the novel in the near future. I can’t wait.