“#3 Here Comes a Candle. Brown, Like Bloch, could be extremely funny when he chose, or extremely frightening. This time he wasn’t kidding.”
-Karl Edward Wagner, “13 Best Non-Supernatural Horror Novels” (Twilight Zone Magazine, 1983)
Frederic Brown isn’t well-known today, but his short stories and novels were widely published when he was in his prime. After Brown passed on in 1972, he was mostly remembered for the novel Martians Go Home, a hilarious SF satire. He wrote for both the science fiction and mystery market, earning countless awards in each.
Here Comes A Candle was first published in 1950.
The hero of Candle is Joe Bailey, a 19-year-old numbers runner for a local Milwaukee gangster named Mitch. Mitch has been feeling the heat lately, so he’s had to curtail his lucrative sports lottery games and look for other opportunities. While he’s cooking up the next scheme, he keeps Joe on a small retainer, allowing Joe the time to think about the past.
And Joe’s past isn’t pretty: he grew up in poverty after seeing his father gunned down in a bungled movie theater robbery. It gets worse: Joe has a pathological fear of candles and hatchets. His uncle had taught him a poem which ended with the rhyme:
“Here comes a candle to light you to bed,
Here comes a chopper to chop off your head.”
As a young child, Joe suffered from horrid nightmares, until a psychologist was able to help him. Still, he feels guilty over his father’s death and still abhors those candles and axes.
Now Joe has met two women who will forever change his life. One is the pretty and sensible Elle, who works as a waitress at the local diner owned by her uncle. The other is the seductive Francy, Mitch’s gun moll girlfriend. Elle is the sensible choice, but how many men make sensible choices when their hormones are on fire?
Brown did an unusual thing when he wrote Candle: he told the flashbacks and dream sequences as radio scripts, movie scripts, sports casts, etc. Such literary experiments are not unusual today, but were quite visionary for 1950.
Ultimately, the novel is one depressing trip. You just know Joe is going to do the wrong thing and there is no one around to give him sound advice. His best friend and fellow science fiction magazine fan is a communist. The bartender who warns Joe of Mitch’s plans is obsessed about nuclear doom. The only father figure who appears in the book is Dixie, a sadistic hold-up man.
Candle is an excellent psychological horror novel from the same stream that produced Nightmare Alley.