DeKalb Illinois, March 1979. Todd Milstead, wannabe writer, adulterer and all-round arsehole, is hosting a party. Despite his ambitions, Todd has no talent whatsoever but does have is an eidetic memory, and so he hosts these parties – tolerated by his ‘friends’ because there’s always good food and booze – in order to show off, mercilessly winning arguments by quoting poetry and literature word for word. But at this particular party he finds himself quoting from a book no-one else has heard of and doesn’t seem to exist, a novel called All My Colors.
But with a divorce and impending financial difficulties looming, this could prove to be Todd’s salvation. After all, he has an entire book in his head that only he can remember, all he has to do is write it down and get it published. If nobody else has heard of it he can’t get into trouble, right? But Todd, and his long-suffering friends and family, will soon find out that there’s always a price to pay for plagiarism, even if what you’re plagiarising shouldn’t exist.
If you need your main characters to be likeable – and you define ‘likeable’ as being ‘morally pure’– it’s safe to say you may struggle with this one. Todd Milstead, protagonist of Emmy-award winning author David Quantick’s novel All My Colors, is introduced on page one as not only being a “jerk” but a jerk who “was giving free rein to his inner dickhead”. But the writing is so good and so funny right off the bat – as the line I’ve just quoted shows – that, if you do decide to give it a try, you likely won’t care about it as much as you thought you did.
With All My Colors, Quantick says he set essentially himself the challenge of writing a Stephen King story (its write-up even compares it to, among others, Richard Bachman, King’s famous penname) and there are some similarities: like King, the characters are sharply observed and well-drawn (even down to the main character being a writer) and the plotting is superb: the premise is set up and from there the consequences domino – going from the darkly funny to the disturbing – until we arrive at the inevitable conclusion.
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But if that makes this sound like merely Stephen King pastiche however, don’t worry. All My Colors is definitely its own thing. Most horror stories are morality tales, and what adds depth and complexity to this one is that Todd does have occasional moments of self-awareness, he goes through genuine transformative experiences, to the point where it feels like he may avoid the doom we know he’s heading towards if he can just not succumb to his worst vices and impulses – only for Quantick (left) to play with the reader’s expectations by revealing that this is the kind of story where the character is given the chance of redemption and promptly f***s it up. It’s also been described as being like an episode of The Twilight Zone and honestly that’s not a bad comparison.
There’s also a deeply satirical edge to the horror, as Quantick uses Todd and what happens to him to make some very sardonic observations about inspiration and plagiarism, the act of writing itself – both for money and for artistic integrity – and the publishing industry (particularly the rigmarole surrounding book tours), also adding depth to the humour beyond the imagery.
Both genuinely funny and genuinely creepy, Todd Milstead’s version of All My Colors may not be the real deal but thankfully Quantick’s is! An old-school horror morality tale with some modern storytelling twists and a climax that’s both brilliantly nasty and chilling.
All My Colors is published by Titan, price (UK) £7.99, paperback.
Reviewer CAROLYN PERCY is a librarian. She contributes reviews to Horla and other publications. Among other qualifications she has a master’s in Creative Writing from the University of Swansea, Wales.
Photo credit – Quantick by Alexander Williams, Wikipedia Creative Commons