I really enjoyed the guilty pleasures that made up the original three books in this series (Devil's Kiss/The (The Devil's), Devil's Touch/The (The Devil's), and Devil's Heart (The Devil's). The fourth book, Devil's Cat (The Devil's) was decent but not as good. However, this final 1992 semi-sequel was terrible! I didn't care that this was a standalone entry and the original heroes and villains of the first four books weren't returning, I just wanted more of the same fun trash, and that's where The Devil's Laughter goes wrong. Horribly wrong!
The first three books alternated the action back and forth between the heroes and the villain (and the villains were always doing insanely evil things), but this book focuses solely on the ridiculous lone wolf hero, Link Donovan, a grumpy redneck Republican writer with a checkered CIA past; pretty girls swoon over him and his opinions make Rush Limbaugh look like a liberal. This is the most selfish book I've ever read; Link is obviously an idealized version of the author, who must have been a very angry, unhappy man. All Link Donovan talks about is how much he loves animals more than people, how much he hates the Devil, and how much liberals suck and have ruined America. A certain amount of that talk is fine, even to be expected. After all, there was plenty of this running rightwing commentary in Johnstone's earlier novels, but the difference is, his opinions took at least some kind of backseat in favor of making sure there was plenty of entertaining action. You know, the sleazy sex and violence people actually buy his trashy novels for (and he wrote about two hundred of them in several different genres, such as westerns and the post-apocalyptic Out of the Ashes (Ashes Series #1)).
After 100 pages of lame, unnecessary "mystery-building" and hearing Link Donovan's mind-numbing opinions about everything from gun control to heavy metal music, with only one lame fight scene (where the hero throws rocks and dumb insults at some trailer trash devil worshippers), I was ready to tear my hair out! 40 pages later, some monsters show up, but turn out to be imaginary. Then some really stupid invisible demonic imps who talk like an eighth-grade version of Freddy Krueger come in and the worst they can do is to call Link "an old fart" and break the handle off his frying pan. And the imps all have dumb names: Wanda, Victor, Roger, etc. Yeah, those are awesome demon names all right, really creative. Then Link shoots a few people, runs over another guy, gives everyone the finger, and passes a bad check for a quarter million dollars so he can cash in on the Apocalypse, even though the bank is run by regular people, not the coven. Of course, Link keeps up his rightwing rants while all the other characters more or less agree what a great guy he is, a real "God warrior." Okay, now we're 20 chapters and 200 pages in and absolutely nothing cool has happened. The main villains (coven leaders) are only mentioned in passing as living nearby! They might as well be on the moon.
I mean, come on . . . Where are all the vampires, werewolves, zombies, and hot, freaky Satan worshipper sex from the original Devil's trilogy? Nowhere to be seen. Instead, we've got a bunch of smelly rednecks running around with guns and bad body odor, because--in Johnstone's world--anyone who worships the Devil stops taking showers. Huh? I guess that's how Link can tell which side they're on, but it feels like a cheat. It would be much scarier if he couldn't tell whose side people were on just by smelling them a block away. Not that it would matter much to Link, who'd probably just shoot first anyway.
Have you noticed I use the name Link a lot? So does Johnstone. It seems like every character has to refer to Link by his name at least once every few sentences: "Yes, Link." "Well sure, Link." "I'll do what I can, Link." He also has a tendency to do this endless name-dropping with other characters as well.
Johnstone's hack writing is readable (and hilariously enjoyable) when he delivers on the sex and violence that originally got his trash a cult following, but not so much when he cheats the reader out of what they thought they were paying for. If the first Devil's trilogy was Rated R, this last book is PG-13, with hardly any gore, sleaze, or profanity at all. Johnstone's go-to insults for his characters are to call each other "crapheads," "pukes," and "farts" and I can count the number of F-bombs on one hand--possibly one finger, and you all know which one I'm holding up. Which is also about the worst most of the villains do to Link: flip him the bird.
The overall plot had potential. It's basically a "wash, rinse, and repeat" of the first three books, but without the nasty parts: Rich Satanists summon demonic monsters to infect/corrupt a rural Southern town. Murders, moral decay, and bad body odor noticed by local tough guy who becomes the "God warrior" and recruits likeminded rednecks to his side. A final battle between the forces of good and evil pretty much destroys the town, kind of like The Punisher, Vol. 1 meets a combination of Stephen King's 'Salem's Lot and Needful Things: The Last Castle Rock Story. This laughable formula was enjoyable in the past but this time, Johnstone was more interested in ramming his over-the-top rightwing social, religious, and political opinions down the reader's throats than in telling an entertaining story.
All the heroes of either gender are cardboard cutouts that read as slightly more reasonable clones of Link (which means they're not rightwing enough, so they can get killed). And there are so many of them, I couldn't keep them all straight in my head. Why should I, when they all felt like cannon fodder? Nor is any attempt made to give the villains any depth at all. They're mostly made up of cartoon character trailer trash who talk in purposely misspelled southern accents like, "Hep me! Hep me! Link done a-throwed a stick of dynamite at me and my guts is all blowed out! I think I'm-a dying . . . Oh God, somebody please hep me!" The more intelligent (and I use that term loosely) coven leaders who are made up of judges, cops, and a 175-year-old witch, are barely give any screen time! They do eventually get a few solo scenes without Link around, but only so they can scream about how much they hate, respect, and are scared of almighty Link. When there's a super-lame plot twist near the end of the book that links Link (pardon my pun) with the coven, it is not exploited at all and has zero effect on the overall plot. A lot of the supporting characters (good and bad) drift in and out of the story and are given short shrift, with a quick, impartial "who cares?" kill, and I swear, some of them disappeared completely and never got their loose ends tied-up. The book feels lazy, rushed, and stupid.
Only once in the first half does the action even veer slightly away from Link, with one quick scene with a state trooper and the imps, but then Link and all his redneck buddies show up, so Link is still in every chapter. And Link sucks!
By making Link an invincible superman with absolutely zero character growth and whose obvious flaws are heralded as virtues, Johnstone blows every chance he's given to inject any sense of sympathy, suspense, or moral quandary into the story. Gee, how will Link respond to any given situation? A) Blindly blame all society's ills on Satan, liberals, and heavy metal music; B) Shoot first and ask no questions later; or C) Tell everyone to shut up and leave him the hell alone.
I never really felt any of the townsfolk Link was protecting were in danger, because if Link is anywhere in the scene, everything just magically goes right. The bad guys never get close. It's only when the supporting cast aren't with Link that they die, get injured, or kidnapped, but those scenes are almost never shown, just the aftermath when Link finds out what happened. Talk about boring!
Okay, now on to the positives, of which there is exactly one: this book had a really cool creepy clown cover, probably the best piece of evil clown art I've ever seen; naturally, the publisher failed to credit the artist. Unfortunately, the art has nothing to do with the book, which has no clowns or circuses in it (evil or otherwise). I'll give it 1.5 stars, mainly out of nostalgia for the original trilogy, which are some of the trashiest "so bad they're good" horror novels I've ever read. This one, however, is pretty much a boring disaster from start to finish. To the author's credit (or my masochistic desire to get my money's worth out of this awful novel), I was able to finish it and no, it never got any better, although there was a lot more Punisher-style violence in the second half . . . and a couple pages of black magic witchcraft and undead rising at the very end. Not that they get to do much of anything before quickly being staked and burned.
This is easily the worst book in the series and only of interest to die-hard Johnstone horror completists. I think it's probably a safe bet to avoid any William W. Johnstone books like this that were written past his cheesy prime in the 1980s. If you're unsure, check the original release dates on the author's wikipedia page because Amazon tends to list the most recent year released, and that can be extremely misleading as many of his earlier, better books (like the original The Devil's trilogy) were reprinted in 1999, a few years before his death.