06/08/2010 04:28 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fear Factor in Fiction

Recently, I had a discussion with some friends regarding the purpose of literature where we bantered about whether the written word is meant to uplift and redeem us as a society or magnify our flaws. I actually don't think it is just one or the other, but couldn't help recall this discussion while reading the unsettling novel, Duncan's Diary: Birth of a Serial Killer (iUniverse) by Christopher C. Payne -- aka Duncan Moron. It's rare when I read horror, but when Payne reached out to me, asking if I'd consider reviewing his novel while warning that it could get quite gruesome, I agreed to take a look at the book.

In spite of the fact that it could have had a sharper editorial eye, the novel is an impressive work on a number of levels. In addition, the gruesome acts weren't as disturbing to me as the impetus for them. Sure, some of the scenes were grisly, making me wonder just who is this author, especially since there is no biography on the book cover offering any suggestions. I imagine that was intentional, where Payne wanted the reader to think maybe he is as unbalanced as his protagonist, a character that goes to great lengths for some of his premeditated murders with women who thought they were going out for an evening with a gentleman who was just getting back into the dating scene after recently being separated from his wife.

Just as Alex, the Glenn Close character in Fatal Attraction, managed to put the fear of cheating in men, Duncan's Diary gives me pause about dating. Actually, if I were to take the novel as a warning, I'd avoid dating altogether for the remainder of my life out of trepidation that I'd come across someone like Duncan who seemed like everyman in some sense of the word, until the switch was flipped and he turned into a perverted, maniacal murderer. What had me most unsettled was that it was easy to believe that Duncan exists. Is he the guy buying me a drink at the bar? The friend of a friend who wants to set me up on a blind date?

Toward the end of the novel, a detective asks, "Who is the person that lives next door to you that you wave to as you pull into the driveway?" That's a question that haunted me as I read this thriller and led me to wonder if works such as Duncan's Diary is a vehicle that takes away our ability to trust or a work that teaches us to be more alert. Or is it simply the creation of an imaginative writer who takes joy in frightening the hell out of his readers? If that is the case, he succeeded with this one.