Reviewed by Michael Berry

Five recent releases delve into the darker sides of science fiction and fantasy, presenting ghosts, demons, virulent diseases and a convicted killer with healing hands.

With "Treasure Box" (Harper Collins; 310 pages; $24), Orson Scott Card returns to the kind of contemporary horror he last served up in "Lost Boys." This time, he focuses on a reclusive millionaire who learns to share his life with a woman, only to have all his dreams ripped apart by her dysfunctional family.

When his parents are forced to end his brain-dead sister's life support, ten-year-old Quentin Fears withdraws from them and from the world. He retreats into literature and eventually into computer programming, racking up by the age of thirty-five a sizeable fortune that means almost nothing to him.

When he meets Madeleine Cryer at a Washington, D.C. society function, he is instantly smitten by the beautiful, self-assured lobbyist. It isn't until after the honeymoon that Fears begins to suspect that he may not have married wisely. After months of refusing to let him meet her parents, Madeleine suddenly takes him to the family estate in New York. Her relatives are an extremely weird and unpleasant lot, perhaps because some of them are still ambulatory after having been dead for decades. Fears finds that he must battle an opponent who can not only read minds, but who is determined to unleash a terrible spirit of destruction upon the world.

Best known for such science fiction and fantasy sagas as the "Ender" and "Alvin Maker" books, Card works with a sure hand in this stream-lined, stand-alone novel.The characters are engaging, the central conceit unique, and the plot reversals keep coming to the very end. "Treasure Box" delivers solid package of creepy entertainment.

Karen Hall, Emmy-nominated writer for television's "M*A*S*H*" and "Hill Street Blues," puts a new spin on the old theme of demonic possession in "Dark Debts" (Random House; 403 pages; $24).

After her former lover jumps out a high-rise window, reporter Randa Phillips travels to Georgia and seeks out his reclusive younger brother, Jack Landry. The Landry clan has long been marked by violence and tragedy, epitomized by Jack's brother Tallen, who was executed for murder. Now, Jack finds himself besieged by the demonic presence that plagued his father and siblings.

Jack's only hope may be Father Michael Kinney, a rebellious Jesuit in love with an editor for The New Yorker. Having already lost one round to the forces of darkness in a botched attempt at an exorcism, Kinney must recover the faith that has eluded him during decades of contention his superiors within the Roman Catholic Church. His struggle against the demon within Jack Landry brings him face-to-face with the essential mystery of Christianity.

More than a little slick and not terribly frightening, "Dark Debts" still succeeds on the strengths its sharp dialogue, intriguing characterizations and philosophical complexity. Working in the shadow of William Peter Blatty's "The Exorcist," Hall manages to craft an original, compulsively readable story. Her skills as a television writer serve her well, and she smoothly makes the transition to novelist.

In "The Third Pandemic" (Pocket Books; 374 pages; $23), Pierre Ouellette, author of "The Deus Machine," cuts the world's population by sixty percent, thanks to a mutated bacterium carried by parrots, pigeons and other birds.

When researcher Dr. Elaine Wilkes runs a sophisticated computer model of a global epidemic, she believes the information will be used to prevent catastrophe. After she learns that her company plans to sit on the information until profits have maximized while millions have died, she flees with the computer disks containing the model and the formula for a possible antidote.

Meanwhile, Seattle cop Phil Paris tracks a psychopath who uses food contamination as a weapon for mass murder. What neither Wilkes nor Paris realizes is that a more-than-theoretical plague is hot on humanity's heels, as a rat bite in Peru, a syphilitic prostitute on a tropical island, and a sneezing parrot together produce a deadly organism with complete resistance to any known antibiotic.

Ouellette's new thriller suffers from both a leaden pace and a superfluity of improbabilities. The painstaking detail with which the author chronicles the birth of a new plague wins points for plausibility, but it impedes the narrative's flow. Meanwhile, the strings of coincidence that bind the main characters prove incapable of maintaining the reader's suspension of disbelief. By the time the supporting cast begins gasping for breath and keeling over from respiratory failure, "The Third Pandemic" has lost the momentum it needs to carry its audience through to the bitter end.

Patrick Nielsen Hayden inaugurates a new science fiction anthology series with "Starlight 1" (Tor; 316 pages; $13.95). The volume includes work by Michael Swanwick, Martha Soukup, John M. Ford and nine others.

In Robert Reed's "Killing the Morrow," modern-day humanity is enslaved by and ultimately rises up against invaders from the future. Jane Yolen imagines an encounter between Emily Dickinson and extraterrestrials in "Sister Emily's Lightship." In "GI Jesus," Susan Palwick tells how a Christ-like face in an x-ray may have performed a medical miracle.

"Starlight" promises to provide science fiction full of "outrageous ideas and jaw-dropping wonder." If its contents do not quite live up to those grandiose expectations, they are nonetheless of a consistently high quailty, without an outright failure in the bunch. Perhaps the most remarkable selection is "Liza and the Crazy Water Man," a gentle and completely charming tale of Depression-era radio by new writer Andy Duncan. Editor Nielsen Hayden neatly fills the void left by the demise of such renowned anthology series as "Universe" and "New Dimensions."

"The Green Mile: Coffey on the Mile" (Signet; 138 pages; $3.99) brings Stephen King's six-volume experiment in serial storytelling to a rousing finish.

Even though convicted murderer John Coffey is innocent and has saved the warden wife's from a terrible death by brain cancer, his guards realize they have no choice but to carry out his execution. The agonizing decision to allow the state-sanctioned killing of a good and extraordinary man reverberates up through the decades, finding its ultimate expression in the elderly narrator's long-withheld secret.

Say what you like about King, but he's a writer who takes chances, even when he doesn't have to. Although the monetary success of "The Green Mile" was always a lock, the artistic quality of the project could have easily fallen by the wayside. By concentrating on what he does best, spinning a tautly plotted tale with sympathetic characters and just the right amount of supernatural spookiness, King pulls off the stunt with aplomb. "The Green Mile" crosses the finish line as one of the most enjoyable genre novels of the year.

(c) 1996 by Michael Berry


people have read this review since September 28, 1996.