Review | Bad Thoughts by Dave Zeltserman

Bad Thoughts

by Dave Zeltserman

Published by Five Star

279 pages, 2007






Smells Like Evil Spirits

Reviewed by James R. Winter


In Dave Zeltserman’s Bad Thoughts, Boston Police Detective Bill Shannon has a serious problem. Once a year, around February 10, he starts having nightmares. Soon, he has trouble sleeping and even more trouble waking up, neglecting even to shower and shave. The symptoms get worse until the inevitable drinking binge takes place, which leads to...


It has happened every year for the past 10 without fail. Shannon’s wife, Susan, and his partner, Bill DiGrazia, cover for Shannon. But everyone has their limits. This year, Shannon’s nightmares start early, and his symptoms coincide with a series of brutal murders.

What scares Shannon is that the circumstances of these killings resemble the manner in which his mother died -- a crime he witnessed 20 years earlier. Shannon’s mother was stabbed in the mouth by a serial killer named Herbert Winters. Shannon doesn’t remember how, but at only 13 years of age, he killed Winters at the scene. And now?

Now Shannon is haunted in his dreams by a foul smell.

He had no idea where he was. It was dark, so damn dark. There was no sense of anything around him. Just something forcing his arm behind his back and squeezing his two fingers. There was a smell, though. Faint but it was there. Something oddly familiar. Like formaldehyde and rotting garbage.

It’s this odor of death that defines Shannon’s fear, as well as his nemesis. Soon, he is convinced that Winters is reaching out from beyond the grave to torment him. Only the danger is real. Women are dying. And Winters is coming to Shannon in his dreams to tell him about it.

... You created me, you little shit. I’m the image that you needed me to be in. I’m part of you. Buried deep inside you. I’m the monster you had to conjure up so you could go along with your little fantasy of what happened. In all truth I’m you. The essence of you. And it makes me sick to my stomach.

Shannon is worried when his nightmares kick in three months ahead of schedule, after a woman disappears. It should be a routine homicide for Shannon, but too many details seem to be straight from his own dreams. Following intuition and panic more than anything, Shannon finds her dead, stabbed in the mouth. The resemblance to the crime that took his mother is so uncanny, it only reinforces his refusal to discuss the murder with his wife, DiGrazia, or even his therapist.

When the slayings start in earnest, this Boston cop’s refusal to discuss his past finally drives Susan away and arouses DiGrazia’s suspicions. It also brings Shannon to the attention of the FBI. But is Winters really reaching out from beyond the grave? Or is Shannon actually a modern-day Jekyll and Hyde?

Dave Zeltserman’s work is usually classic noir. Like James M. Cain, Jim Thompson and, more recently, Jason Starr, he favors enraged protagonists who paint themselves with a veneer of civility that hides their homicidal fires within. In his 2004 novel, Fast Lane, Johnny Lane never denied what he was, but as Zeltserman peels back the layers, Lane clings to his cover story long after his true identity is revealed. Bill Shannon is different. As the layers are peeled back, even Shannon starts to wonder whether he’s a monster.

Adding to the tension in Bad Thoughts is the horror angle. This is definitely a horror story, but the element of Winters, supposedly dead, leaves the reader questioning whether there are elements of the supernatural involved. Through Shannon’s memory, we see Winters killed in such a way that leaves no question as to his fate. Yet here he is, years later, tormenting Shannon, threatening his wife and his partner, and giving detailed information to Shannon about the grisly murders leading up to the detective’s annual blackout.

There’s more in this yarn than meets the eye, and Zeltserman’s take on the supernatural is unusual, to say the least. But before he establishes whether Winters is alive, some sort of ghoul from a Stephen King novel, or merely a convenient figment of Shannon’s imagination, Zeltserman paints him as a nasty piece of work, indeed.

The only real flaw in Zeltserman’s work here is the supernatural component. Raising the possibility of supernatural influences helps build suspense. But the author resolves the question too late in his story. I’d have preferred to see the issue settled earlier, leaving Zeltserman free to have Winters operate out in the open during the final act of this yarn.

As in Fast Lane and many of Zeltserman’s short stories, the men in Bad Thoughts are bundles of repressed rage. Shannon clearly suffers from contained anger over his mother’s death and his father’s irrational reaction to Shannon’s part in it. DiGrazia hates criminals in general and begins to hate Shannon when the latter won’t own up to his past. As for Winters ... Well do I need to explain Winters? At the most basic level, he’s an arrogant psychopath. Even in death.

If the men in this book are studies in rage, the main female characters bear witness to it. Susan Shannon is a case study of why some people remain in abusive relationships. While her husband never intentionally mistreats her, his blackouts take more and more of a toll on their marriage. Susan recalls one episode when a crack whore showed up and explained how Shannon had stayed with her during his latest blackout. Susan nearly left him after that, but couldn’t bring herself to abandon a sick man. Shannon’s therapist, Elaine Horwitz, thinks Shannon’s on the verge of a breakthrough, if only he’ll reveal what happened between his mother and Winters so long ago. He can’t, though, and both this and Detective Shannon’s refusal to acknowledge her lust for him frustrates Horwitz.

Overall, Zeltserman makes exceptional use of imagery, specifically the rotting garbage smell, which is never really defined. In the end, we learn only that Winters favors it, as it instills fear in his victims. Bad Thoughts is dark -- Edgar Allan Poe dark, and I put the book down feeling as though I’d just run through a gloomy, damp, filthy alley.

Which is exactly what Zeltserman was going for, wasn’t it? | July 2007


James R. Winter is a writer and reviewer from Cincinnati, Ohio, where he does tech support for an insurance company. A regular contributor to CrimeSpree Magazine and occasional contributor to The Rap Sheet, his short stories have appeared in ThugLit, Crime Scene Scotland and the late, lamented Plots With Guns. Check out his blog, Northcoast Exile. Potential employers should look over his contributions to Tales from the Cube Farm.