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Twilight Healer
by Barbara Custer
Night to Dawn Books, $13.75, 298pp
Published: September 2014

As an author who publishes his own work, I'm well aware of the quality assumptions that often surround self-publishing. Having worked with a number of small presses, I'm also well aware that the same biases often apply there too. However, I've read good books published by the authors themselves or by small presses.

I've even read and enjoyed books from the small press known as Night to Dawn, which advertises itself as 'an unholy matrimony between horror and science fiction.' While that doesn't apply to the Night to Dawn books that I've reviewed at The Nameless Zine, namely the character studies masquerading as mysteries by JoAnna Senger, it very much describes 'Twilight Healer' by the woman behind Night to Dawn, Barbara Custer. She's published a magazine of that name since 2004, but this book predates that, being first published in 2001 and now on its fourth edition.

Unfortunately, while I enjoyed Senger's books, albeit not in a way that she expected, I didn't find much to enjoy in 'Twilight Healer.' I did make it through almost 300 pages to get to the point I expected almost 250 earlier, but it gradually became a notable challenge. I don't believe it fair to review anything without completing it, so I put myself through a good deal of suffering for your sake, dear reader. You owe me.

It starts poorly, with back and forth cutting that doesn't help the introduction of characters; don't forget that we're at that 'unholy matrimony between horror and science fiction,' which means here that our vampire story unfolds across two parallel worlds, where each of the small cast has an equivalent who looks exactly the same but is otherwise different in every way. After all, the other world is 500 years behind ours, so women wear dresses and everyone rides horses or walks in mud.

However, once we catch up to who everyone is, it does improve for a while. Leslie Taite, the lead, is a promising character because she has very apparent flaws that have placed her in an unenviable work situation. She's a respiratory therapist, for no better reason than Barbara Custer is a respiratory therapist too, but she also has a learning disability. I've read far too many books revolving around perfect lead characters, especially those featuring romance to any degree, that to find an other-abled lead character like this makes me very happy.

I found that I wanted to learn about Leslie. I wanted to find out what drove her to study medicine, given the fact that it takes her fifty times as long as the average person to get anything stuck in her head. I wanted to learn why she continues to work in the field, with impatience, intolerance and outright bigotry hurled at her daily. I wanted to see how she copes with being slower than everyone around her and how it affects the rest of her life. For a while, that works.

But after a while, it becomes a massive problem. Leslie is the character about whom everyone else in 'Twilight Healer' cares deeply, one way or another. Family members either adore her or blame her for the death of her mother. Most of her co-workers hate her with a passion but a few champion her relentlessly. Her boyfriend Alex, whom she doesn't know is a vampire refugee from a parallel universe, is head-over-heels in love with her. Even Hades, the god of the underworld, apparently sees her on a different level to every other human in existence. Clearly, she should be someone special in more than just the derogatory sense.

Yet, she isn't. The very first line of the book introduces the fact that she's caused the death of a patient by the name of Fitzpatrick because she doesn't know how to use the equipment properly. She hauls out a bunch of valid excuses, which ought to help build her character: the hospital administrators won't take the time to train her properly, her supervisors shout at her and expect her blindly to do things right first time, her co-workers don't answer questions and end up confusing her. I really wanted Custer to build Leslie through her disability, but she doesn't. She merely pouts that it's everyone else's fault and deliberately stays in a position where she is the difference between life and death to her patients without the necessary skills. I'd call that criminal negligence; Custer calls her the heroine of the story and with that, she lost me.

In fact, Leslie gets worse as the book runs on. I had sympathy for her initially and more sympathy as she finds herself with amnesia after a serious car accident, treated in the very same hospital at which she worked, berated by people she doesn't recognise for acts which she doesn't remember. The potential here was huge, but she just becomes more and more annoying as the story runs on. The only character I could buy into caring about her was Fred, a co-worker whom she'd saved from death by vampire.

By the halfway mark, I honestly thought that Custer had chosen the title of 'Twilight Healer' because she had started out in 'Twilight' fan fiction and expanded to an original story. There seemed to be no other reason for the title, because nothing has anything to do with twilight in the slightest, but I find that this predates Stephanie Meyer's insanely best-selling crud by four full years.

You'd think Custer would change her title when reissued to avoid a comparison, especially as the emotional interaction here is on the same sort of level, with fully-grown adults, centuries-old vampires and even a god, for Christ's sake, acting like tweens experiencing their first crush. The overblown dialogue gets so painfully cheesy that it's hard to imagine anyone over the age of eight reading it without breaking up laughing. It also often veers off topic like the dialogue Tommy Wiseau wrote for 'The Room,' which is never a positive comparison for anything.

Yet here it's a frequent comparison. Who else but Wiseau would stage a whole series of vampire murders outside a hospital but never think to introduce a security presence or a police investigation? Who but Wiseau would introduce Greek mythology into the story through the character of Hades (and his wife Persephone), who runs Tartarus in the parallel world, but never explore religion or belief other than Leslie's odd adherence to her own one God true even when chatting with another? Would anyone else have Hades send his bat spies to a hospital, where they literally knock relentlessly on ward windows, but not have anyone bring in exterminators to do anything about it? Actually, as those bats are the only sympathetic characters in the entire book, I'd have felt bad if they'd been hurt.

This sort of thing goes on throughout. Everyone is blind to a single goal, which might make sense initially but certainly doesn't when extrapolated over 300 pages. Custer's attempts to rationalise any of this are embarrassingly bad. Sure, it's a horror meets science fiction story, but the horror is limited to the fact that some of the characters are vampires and the science fiction is limited to the fact that we have a parallel universe. Neither genre is explored, beyond heightened vampire senses helping in healthcare.

I only hope that, dating back to 2001, this was the first book to bear the name of Barbara Custer and her work has improved since then. Certainly, it's laid out well and proofed well, if I'd have preferred a thinner choice of font. The book is oddly heavy for 300 pages, which makes it a little uncomfortable for single handed readers, but it successfully avoids most of the regular pitfalls that plague so many self-published books and small press offerings. The young lady on the front cover is pleasing to the eye too, even if we can't really connect her to the story inside.

But we should judge this book on more than how well Night to Dawn can handle justification, indents and smart quotes. We need to judge it on the story that it contains and, we find that it deserves to be locked up for a very long time indeed, guilty of the crime of setting up potential but failing to achieve any of it. Dear reader, I say again: you owe me. ~~ Hal C F Astell

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