The Horror Zine Review
The World on Fire
by Sheldon Woodbury
|Print Length: 200 pages
Publisher: James Ward Kirk Publishing (August 16, 2014)
The World on Fire
by Sheldon Woodbury
review by Scott Urban
A figure, seemingly formed from nightmare, appears on a country road. He is dressed in a tattered, cheap black suit and rattlesnake boots, and even his smile is midnight dark, since his teeth are rotten and decayed. His thoughts are centered on bringing about death, fear, and fire – and on locating a candy bar, the only thing he’s interested in eating. This is Louis Sedah, dubbed The Angel of Death by members of the media, the central figure in Sheldon Woodbury’s first novel The World on Fire.
Early in the novel, Woodbury lets us into Sedah’s thoughts as he sums up his philosophy:
All the petty rules and silly regulations were meaningless. The only true way to glorify life was to live it with delirious freedom. So let’s shake things up and see where they fall. Nothing is sacred. Nothing is safe. Be a fighter, not a slave.
His earlier, random murders and arsons aren’t enough. Sedah craves nothing less than to shatter the soul of our modern, ‘civilized’ society. In order to put his plan in place, he allows himself to be captured. Locked away inside the Spookhouse, a maximum-security facility in Colorado housing the worst of the worst, it seems as if the Angel of Death’s bloody spree is at an end.
Sedah agrees to be interviewed by David Milton. Milton had once been a top-tier journalist, but an error in judgment meant he could only find employment at a check-out counter rag, barely a step up from The National Enquirer. Milton doesn’t know why he’s been selected, but he’s grateful for the opportunity to possibly revive his flagging career. Before the interview really gets underway, however, a prison riot breaks out – a riot carefully orchestrated by Sedah.
With cronies and Milton in tow, Sedah frees six death-row inmates. These are prisoners whose crimes were all so horrific that they, like Sedah, earned sinister monikers from the press, including Death.com, the Hangman, and Dr. Doom. The escaping criminals swear allegiance to Sedah and form a coalition bent on destruction: a sort of “Evil Avengers” or an “Anti-Justice League.”
It is almost an indigenous issue to the horror genre that, far too often, the antagonist is delineated with much more care than the protagonist (think Harris’s Hannibal Lector or McCarthy’s Chigurh). To oppose Sedah, Woodbury introduces Locke Wright, an FBI profiler who comes out of retirement to help track down The Angel of Death and his malicious crew. He’s devoted so much of his life to understanding evil that he suffers from chronic pain and is nearly addicted to medication and alcohol to numb the ache.
Wright’s experiences have stripped away from him any notions of innocence or even neutrality:
It was the main lesson the job taught you, that evil isn’t as isolated as most people think. They go about their lives reading about it in the newspaper and watching it on TV, thinking it always happens to someone else. But it can happen to anyone, at any time, because it’s all around us, we just can’t see it.
Unfortunately, Wright isn’t treated very realistically. He is supposed to be the best in the business, and has worked to bring in all the ‘big-name’ serial killers in the past. However, time and again, he overlooks vital clues. He neglects to follow up leads that would easily lead him to Sedah. He sullies crime scenes and neglects to investigate Sedah’s past. I wanted to like him, but I’ll admit that I sort of cheered when his fate caught up to him.
Woodbury does construct some jaw-dropping set-pieces, mainly focusing on an anarchic subculture that only needs Sedah’s not-so-gentle prodding to ignite into a firestorm. The most notable of these is an Underworld (as opposed to Underground) Railroad, which rolls along on forgotten tracks. When I read this, I was reminded of secret agent James West’s private train from the TV series The Wild, Wild West, except that Sedah’s train is given over to vice and depravity, rather than the pursuit of justice.
The author flicks his wrist at the end for a twist that some readers may see coming. Still, readers will delight (vicariously, I hope) in a cross-country, death-filled odyssey through an inverted image of America devoid of decency and safety. I have to hope Woodbury has come up with most of this from his imagination, because, if not, we are, all of us, in some serious trouble.
Troubling on many different levels, Woodbury’s The World on Fire still resonates in my mind, even though weeks have passed and I’ve read many other books since. You can’t feel anything other than hatred and disgust for Sedah, so he can’t even be termed an ‘anti-hero.’ And yet, you’ll find he remains there, in the back of your mind, prodding at you with a sinister whisper, inviting you to indulge in the evil you imagine. The fact that you have to argue with him to keep yourself on a moral path may be the highest recommendation I can make for reading Woodbury’s novel.
You can buy the book HERE
About the author
Sheldon Woodbury is an award-winning writer (screenplays, plays, books, and short stories) living in New York City, where he also teaches screenwriting at New York University.
His books include Cool Million, a how-to guide on high concept screenwriting. His screenplay "The Book of Magic" won first prize in the Maniafest horror screenwriting competition. His latest short stories are "Bones in a City Graveyard" in Bones 2 (James Ward Kirk Publishing), “Dirty Minds” in Serial Killers Quattuor (James Ward Kirk Publishing), "The Halloween House" in One Hellacious Halloween (Horror Novel Reviews), "Family Affair" in Clerics, Charlatans & Cultists (Gothic City Press), “Last Call” in Shots of Terror (Angelic Knight Press), “Payback is a Bitch” in We are Dust and Shadow (James Ward Kirk Fiction), “Between Heaven and Hell” in
The World on Fire, his horror novel, was published September, 2014 by James Ward Kirk Fiction. His poetry has appeared in Dark Gothic Resurrected magazine and other publications.
About the reviewer
Scott Urban has been a voice in genre writing for several decades, with prose, poetry, and reviews appearing in numerous print and electronic outlets. His fiction collection Bloody Show (Pallid Mask Publishing) is available through Amazon’s Kindle Store. His most recent poetry collection God’s Will (Mad Rush Books) is available through Lulu.com. His most recent anthology appearance is the poem “Hallow’s Eve” in Every River on Earth (Neil Carpathios, editor). A former public school teacher and administrator, he now works with troubled youth in southeastern Ohio.