Sunday, January 2, 2011

REVIEW: I Am Not a Serial Killer by @johncleaver (and hopefully none of us will become one)

Wells, D.  (2010).  I Am Not a Serial Killer.  New York:  Tor.

271 pages.

Appetizer:  John Wayne Cleaver is one of the weird kids at Clayton High School.  A freshman, he's been working at his mom and aunt's mortuary since he was little.  He's obsess--fascinated--with serial killers.  He has weekly sessions with a therapist and he only has one friend at school, a boy named Max, who John doesn't actually like that much, but uses to help him blend in.  He also has rules, things he does or avoids so he won't become a serial killer.  Of course, his mom doesn't appreciate any of his efforts.

But when there is a brutal murder in town, and then another one, John begins to suspect that there is a serial killer in his own town.  He can't help but be drawn into the figure out who the killer, the monster is, even if it means breaking some of his rules.

Few But Dear Readers, if you want a creepy creeeeeeeeepy book, this is the one for you.


John is...John is..., well, John is creepy.  But he struggles against his dark nature, so he is al endearing and as a care about him...while also being creeped-out by him.

Is it just me, or is the corpse finger way
to close to his nostril for comfort?
Yes?  No?  Am I alone in this?
I have no doubt that Dan Wells has heard/read this before and I also have doubt that he is sick of hearing/reading it, but as a character, John is a lot like a young Dexter from the Showtime series.  But instead of trying to just control his dark passenger and follow a code to kill other killers the way Dexter does, John tries to resist his darkness entirely by establishing rules to prevent himself from ever killing.

The one issue I encountered as I read that I wasn't to crazy about it came on page 52.  It's a spoiler for the content up to that point.  So, stop reading if you don't want a spoiler!  (Although I've also read blogs that presented the following information as though it wasn't even a spoiler.  So, don't feel too spoiled.  Also, keep in mind this book begins on page 13.  So, I'm really only spoiling you for 39 pages.)

Enough rambling, here's the actual spoiler:

So, by page 52, the body of the first serial killer victim has been sent to the family mortuary and John has volunteered to help embalm the body.  As he looks over the torn and autopsied remains, he narrates:

"...I studied the slashes in the body's abdomen.  They were certainly animalistic, and one area on its left side had what looked like a claw mark--four ragged slits, about an inch apart, that extended nearly a foot toward the belly.  This was the work of the demon, of course, though we still didn't know that at the time.  How could we?  Back then, none of us even suspected that demons were real.  I placed my own hand over the marks and guessed that whoever made them had a hand much bigger than mine" (p. 52)

I really didn't like this interruption from future-John to introduce the fantasy (or magical realism to some!) element.  (And who is "we" exactly?  John and his family?  John and lil ol' me?)  There are only a few interruptions like that throughout the book, and while I normally LOVE pseudo-memoirs, it just wasn't working for me in this book.  I prefer subtle hints that there's a fantasy element.  (And that actually happens just a few pages later, when Max suggests that a werewolf is doing the killing.  And even though John dismisses that idea, as readers we still now have that fantasy element in our minds.  So, I would have preferred just to have subtle hints like that one instead of the memoir interruptus.

I'll admit, when I first started reading I Am Not a Serial Killer, I was a little too creeped out by John's voice.  I had to tell myself not to read it before bed, for fear of odd dreams.  But as I eased into the book, I became more comfortable as John outlined more of who he was and as the plot took over.  Then I didn't want to stop reading.

There were a lot of great lines (like "Outside, a November snowstorm raged, but inside we warmed ourselves by the fire of a media frenzy" (p. 82).) and wonderful metaphors insights into John's unique (and dark!) perspective on life.  At one point, while he's outside by a lake in winter, he narrates:

Exposure to nature--cold, heat, water--is the most dehumanizing way to die.  Violence is passionate and real--the final moments as you struggle for your life, firing a guy or wrestling a mugger or screaming for help, your heart pumps loudly and your body tingles and energy; you are alert and awake and, for that brief moment, more alive and human then you've ever been before.  Not so with nature.
At the mercy of the elements the opposite happens:  your body slows, your thoughts grow sluggish, and you realize just how mechanical you really are.  Your body is a machine, full of tubes and valves and motors, of electrical signals and hydraulic pumps, and they function properly only within a certain range of conditions.  As temperatures drop, your machine breaks down.  Cells begin to freeze and shatter; muscles use more energy to do less; blood flows too slowly, and to the wrong places.  Your senses fade, your core temperature plummets, and your brain fires random signals that your body is too weak to interpret or follow.  In that state you are no longer a human being, you are a malfunction--an engine without oil, grinding itself to pieces in its last futile effort to complete its last meaningless task." (p. 99)

If you're not too squeamish, I definitely recommend this book.

Also, Dan Wells is one of the regular contributors to Writing Excuses.  I talked about the writing podcast previously when I reviewed Alcatraz Versus the Shattered Lens by Brandon Sanderson.  An MFA program that only costs you 20 minutes a week friend.  (That and you'll have to work on your craft.)

The start of a trilogy, the second book, Mr. Monster is already out.  Guess who will be picking it up soon?  (But not too soon, I need to forget some of what I Am Not a Serial Killer taught me about embalming first.  It's for my own good.)

Dinner Conversation:

"Mrs. Anderson was dead.
Nothing flashy, just old age--she went to bed one night and never woke up.  They say it was a peaceful, dignified way to die, which I suppose is technically true, but the three days it took for someone to realize they hadn't seen her in a while removed most of the dignity from the situation" (p. 13).

"'I think,' I said, watching his face for a reaction, "that fate wants me to become a serial killer."
He raised an eyebrow, nothing more.  I told you he was calm.
"Well," he said, "you're obviously fascinated by them--you've read more on the subject than probably anyone in town, including me.  Do you want to become a serial killer?"
"Of course not," I said.  "I specifically want to avoid becoming a serial killer.  I just don't know how much chance I have" (p. 31).

"This year, you'd have thought that Halloween would be pretty cool--after all, we had a real demon in town, with fangs and claws and everything.  That ought to count for something.  But none of us knew about it yet, and it had only killed two people so far, so instead of cowering in our basements praying for salvation, we ended up in the high school gym pretending to enjoy a Halloween dance.  I'm actually not sure which is worse" (p. 74).

"The monster behind the wall stirred.  I'd come to think of it as a monster, but it was just me.  Or the darker part of me, at least.  You probably think it would be creepy to have a real monster hiding inside of you, but trust me--it's far, far worse when the monster is really just your own mind.  Calling it a monster seemed to distance it a little, which made me feel better about it.  Not much better, but I take what I can get" (p. 88).

Tasty Rating:  !!!!!

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