It is the single most effective and terrifying horror story I've ever read in my life. Terrifying, yet utterly mundane. The scenario was completely ordinary, about a father trying to get to his daughter, and her friend, in a darkened basement with no light source, where they are playing a form of hide and seek, after seeing a diamondback rattlesnake slip in through a broken basement window. He can't see anything, but he can hear, and he's fumbling around in the dark, trying not to scare the girls for fear they'll startle the snake, all the while battling his own ophidiophobia.
It's so horrifying and so completely ordinary a scenario. And the way Alter handled it, the brilliance he exhibited in how, with a minimum of words (the prose is rapid-fire and terse), he infused every sentence with enough tension that my stomach was in knots while reading it, and at one point, my hands were trembling, blew me away.
No piece of prose has ever terrified me the way this story did. I knew before I'd even finished "Killer in the Dark" that Alter was a genius and I needed to read more of his work.
Unfortunately, there's not much more to read. Alter was a staple of Alfred Hitchcock, Man from U.N.C.L.E. Magazine and a few other markets for the first half of the sixties, totally about forty stories from what I've seen. He also, during that time, published a pair of crime novels through Gold Medal, and a nautical thriller novel with Avon. And then, in 1966, at the age of 40, he passed away, a victim of cancer. Avon would later posthumously publish a sci-fi novel of his.
I learned all of this in the course of trying to track down more of his work and it made me even more determined to find more of it. So far, I've found an issue of Man from U.N.C.L.E. with an OK spy story, and a reprint of his second GM crime novel - CARNY KILL, which I've just finished reading.
Though very different from his short work I've read, CARNY KILL shows Alter's brilliance almost as well as "Killer in the Dark." The set-up is simple, but unusual: L.M. "Thrax" Thraxton, an extremely intelligent man, who lacks much formal education and has made his way through life as one of the most gifted carnies (he can do anything from magic acts, to grifts, to fake psychic routines) makes his way to Never Never Land Amusement park, seeking work, hits it off with the owner and is offered a job on the spot - only to find his estranged ex-wife is now married to the owner. When that owner turns up dead the very next day, Thrax is the natural suspect.
The story is quite a good mystery and is filled with the kind of southern carny flavor you sometimes find in films, but rarely in a crime novel. There's plenty of atmosphere and the mystery was one I actually was having trouble solving as I followed along with Thrax's investigation. That doesn't happen too often, but I'm very pleased to say it did this time, as it was a real treat when the reveal came along.
I won't spoil anything, in case you want to read it, but again, it only made me want to read more of Alter's work. I'll definitely be doing so and recommend it very much to all of you.