Title: Rockinghorse (Published January 1986, Zebra Books)
Author: William W. Johnstone (Sweet Dreams, Wolfsbane)
Official Synopsis:“ It came in the dead of the night—a rhythmic creaking sound that only the children could hear. Jackie and Johnny tried not to listen. But it called to them, whispering of evil, luring them into the darkness of the attic.
With its brightly colored saddle and painted-on eyes, it was the most beautiful rockinghorse Jackie and Johnny had ever seen. But as they took turns riding it, they didn’t see its tail twitch or its lips curve into a terrifying grin. They couldn’t hear the faint whicker that echoed among the shadows.
They couldn’t know that their own innocent eyes had taken on a strange new gleam…”
In the hierarchy of schlocky horror paperback writers, William W. Johnstone is at least in the preferiti if not perched atop the damnable throne. His shameless exploitation of iniquitous shock is universally deplored by most who put themselves through the drudgery of his drivel.
And here we go…
Lucas Bowers moves his wife and two kids (Jackie & Johnny) down south into a dilapidated mansion he inherited set in the Georgia countryside. The mansion’s drunk caretaker (Lige) has been languishing around the property for years since the grandfather had passed away, letting the place rot. He’s even been embezzling funds and pissing it all away on booze and cigarettes. Some handful of pages later, Lucas finally grows a pair by whipping Lige into shape in order to fix up the place.
Innocuously, the Rockinghorse squeaks, whines, and rocks for a good while early on. Hooded intruders start terrorizing the family at night. Johnny and Jackie are being enticed by ghostly kids to frolic in the pines, a vast dark woods behind the property full of mystery and eerie aura. Receiving his own spooky seduction, Lucas starts sleep walking into the woods and ends up with a tattoo. Lige gets killed soon after. How? I don’t remember, but his dead eyeballs end up floating around in the novel’s climax. That’s only a fraction of the buffoonery to ensue.
What about the titular Rockinghorse? It springs itself to life in a freakish prance. Lucas shoots it with a shotgun, only to have it vomit up yellow slime. This triggers a Stand By Me puke fest from the family.
The county sheriff informs Lucas that the group terrorizing them is called ‘the brotherhood.‘ A satanic cult known to stalk the Pines. He downplays the Rockinghorse incident, reckoning that Lige probably rigged it with magic beans or some non-sense.
The ghost children lure Jackie and johnny deeper into the Pines where they stumble upon cloaked figures performing a blood sacrifice. Skulls burn in the pyre as chicken blood is drenched on them. But this isn’t the cult that’s been harassing the family. They’re actually college professors with erudition in mythology and archaeology. Lucas and a deputy (Kyle, a maniacal Vietnam vet) confront them. However, everything they’re doing is legal and harmless–the skulls were obtained legally and slaughtering chickens will never be a crime in the south. Duh. Their goal is to prove or disprove the existence of witchcraft. They become allies to the family for the duration.
The professors voice exposition on the accursed land occupied by the Brotherhood. Apparently, only “bad witches” survived and absconded the Salem witch trials while the “good witches” were all executed. Their haven has been the Pines for some hundreds of years. God and Satan even clashed in these woods. In this fracas, Satan tossed a lightning bolt that Zeus would envy at an oak tree. The Rockinghorse was carved out of this damned tree. Since then, it’s been a religious relic where satanists have poured buckets of blood on it in reverence to the Devil.
From hereafter the book streamlines into repetitive absurdity as the supernatural Rockinghorse stays perched outside the attic –squeaking, whinnying, laughing, snickering, and taunting the bowers family along with Deputy Kyle and his psychic wife.
Over and over. They burn it, shoot it, smash it, and bury it in mortar to no avail. It remains as indestructible as the t-800 101 from Terminator (1984).
It never attacks them. It continues to monitor and mock them as their reality distorts into a delusion. The mansion is haunted, creating a bizarre realm where they are unable to leave the property. A gaggle of guests, each as dull and one-dimensional as the next, arrive to crank up the cacophonous hysteria. They’re all trapped in this inescapable bubble. Johnstone fails to convince us of its plausibility. Their cars either won’t start, blow-up, or won’t go in reverse. Yep, that’ll do it.
The Brotherhood descends upon the Bower’s house, generating phantasmagorical chaos. Maggot-infested Heads start rolling and floating. Limbs are cut off. The house eats someone. Southern platitudes set fiery off galore. Characters become so convoluted that it would make identifying a single Asian out of the entire population of China seem easier.
Oh yeah, their guns won’t work, and therefore they’re relegated to carving out primitive weaponry–sling shots and honed spears. In the midst of this mayhem, the ghostly children are considered aids to the main cast in peril, giving them pointers. Some pointless creatures referred to as “the Rejects” also occupy the Pines as a potential threat, but do nothing. They’re beasts in the genus of Bigfoot creatures. But why? I have no explanation, neither does Johnstone.
Although the Bower’s mansion is isolated in the backwoods, the townspeople are under a sedation spell. Half the police force is missing. Among the remaining law enforcement members, they try to radio the Deputy Kyle because there ain’t no phones out there!
Would you believe the brotherhood has ties to the Bowers family? the leader happens to be Lucas’s brother (Ira) with the other members being the missing police force. They discuss terms to come to a resolution. They need a Bower’s family member for their sacrifice. It’s an unspecified special ritual owed to Satan.
As an unlikely deus ex machina, the hickish governor of Georgia is informed by the highway patrol of all the disappearances and deaths. After a haphazard attempt to silence and cover it all up, they all head out in a convoy to the mansion. The Brotherhood members perish by daylight before they get there. Jackie offered her body as rape bait to the Brotherhood as a ruse, or something. Then they were banished.
The survivors are left to elucidate all the absurd atrocities that Johnstone wrote. After a swallowing of chewing tobacco, the Governor let’s the Bowers kids (Jackie & Johnny) to hurl homemade fire bombs at the mansion in order to end the abomination. Meanwhile, the Bowers family returns home to New York. A mini gold rockinghorse relic manifests in the driveway and Lucas thoughtlessly hands it over to Jackie. The affliction of Johnstone doesn’t end until he leaves us with a terrible tease to a sequel as Ira Bowers phones little Jackie some months later: “Hey, It’s your uncle Ira.”
Final Thoughts: The novel has it’s entertaining moments. However, it’s muddled in bland characters and repetitive action scenes. Johnstone’s writing is a laborious chore to handle at times. The Man has no limits or shame.