Okay, so over the last couple of months, I’ve done a lot of talking about the new novel by J.C. Hutchins, Personal Effects: Dark Art. This is something I was excited about for several reasons. I’m a fan of Hutchins‘ work, I’m a fan of his work in the new media, and I thought the way this story was being presented was a really clever, exciting thing. And now the book is finally out, so I guess it’s time for me to tell you what I actually thought when I read the thing.
Personal Effects: Dark Art focuses on Zach Taylor, an art therapist at an asylum for the criminally insane. Just coming off a major breakthrough, Taylor is given a particularly challenging new case — Martin Grace, an accused serial killer who claims his crimes were not his own work, but that of a mysterious “Dark Man.” Despite this, is making no effort to defend himself. And to make Zach’s job even harder, the art therapist’s newest patient suffers from psychosomatic blindness. As Zach tries to get to the root of Grace’s demons, he begins to uncover disturbing facts about his own family and his own past, and begins to believe that perhaps the Dark Man isn’t just a product of a lunatic’s imagination.
If you look at this simply as a debut novel, it’s pretty good. Hutchins does a very strong job of developing Zach and the world he inhabits. He gives us enough traces of the supernatural early so that when it becomes a major factor it isn’t a shock to the system. The plot is tight and follows a good, logical progression that builds up to a really exciting climax. If it was just a book, in and of itself, I would definitely give it a thumbs-up.
Here’s the thing, though. Personal Effects: Dark Art isn’t “just” a book. Hutchins’ co-creator for this work is Jordan Weisman, a well-known figure in the field of ARGs (Alternate Reality Games), and what you get here is a product that brilliantly straddles the line between novel and ARG. Along with the story, you get a pocket full of items that relate to the the book — cards, paperwork, legal documents, photographs… all kinds of very realistic extra items that relate back to the story. As you’re reading along, the characters sometimes find the same items that you have in your own possession, allowing you to examine them fully to determine what they’re looking at. Other times, you’re given a clue that reminds you of a name on one of the documents, so again, you go back and look to see what else you’re missing.
That’s not all, though. As you read the book and examine the items, you’re directed towards certain websites — sites that really do exist, and give you even more clues. One of the URLs you uncover sends you to a website about the history of the Taylor family, another to a funeral home visited in the book. And while the sites certainly look as legitimate as the death certificats found along with the book, if you delve into the information there, you can find even more bits and pieces that point towards the truth about what Zach Taylor is encountering. Phone numbers mentioned in the book will lead you to recorded messages. Basically, everything that exists outside of the text itself helps you, the reader, to “play along.” In a way, you almost become Zach Taylor, trying to unravel the disturbing truth about Martin Grace.
This is what I love about a great mystery — not just reading, but that idea of joining in the hunt. A really good book will allow you to match wits with the characters, to try to figure out the truth along with them. Bad mysteries cheat by leaving out crucial details. This book does just the opposite, giving you more ways to immerse yourself into the story than any book I’ve ever read. Even if it was “just” a book, it would be a good one. When you add in the extra stuff, it’s some of the most fun I’ve had reading in a very long time.