I’d never have wandered by this book in the bookstore (online or brick-and-morter). But I encountered this book in the strangest of places: on my mother’s kitchen counter. I stopped, in surprise, and picked it up.
“Did you buy this?” I asked her. It looked to be mainstream with a horror bent, or just plain genre horror. Mom is an eclectic reader, like I am, but other than the occasional Stephen King she tends toward mainstream novels, biographies, historical fiction, some SF/F, etc.
Mom shrugged. “It was recommended by my book club. You can borrow it, if you want.”
I read the flap and the premise was intriguing. The synopsis indicated it was a Young Adult (YA) book, based upon the (inferred) age of the protagonist and the way it was written:
John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. He’s spent his life doing his best not to live up to his potential.
He’s obsessed with serial killers but really doesn’t want to become one. So for his own sake, and the safety of those around him, he lives by rigid rules he’s written for himself, practicing normal life as if it were a private religion that could save him from damnation.
Dead bodies are normal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t demand or expect the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the objectivity to recognize that there’s something different about the body the police have just found behind the Wash-n-Dry Laundromat–and to appreciate what that difference means.
Now, for the first time, John has to confront a danger outside himself, a threat he can’t control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.
I turned the book over and looked at the quotes. Even more intriguing, Brandon Sanderson had provided a quote. There was also a quote from an author I didn’t recognize, but Brandon Sanderson—I consider him the most promising new author in the Fantasy genre. Why quote him on YA horror, unless there was some sort of supernatural or speculative element in this book? I decided to read it. In the acknowledgements, I found out that Sanderson is a friend of the author, so I thought I might be wrong… but I wasn’t. It just took a bit of time to get to the supernatural part.
Not Your Typical Brain-Dead Horror
…And I’m not referring to zombies (har-har). I don’t read or watch much horror. First, I don’t like dumb Hollywood-style theatrics (like grabbing characters through walls, monsters jumping in your face, etc). Second, I hate gory thrillers involving logic-challenged protagonists. Thankfully the author avoided both these horror cliches.
Mr. Wells has a smart and thoughtful protagonist in John Cleaver and, surprisingly, one that readers can relate to. John’s mother and aunt run a mortuary, where John sees more than his share of corpses and helps with the embalming. Some readers (i.e., on Amazon) thought there was too much “ick factor” in this, but it didn’t bother me. Well’s character John has a clinical and distant 1st-person voice when describing mortuary processes, reminding me of college bio/chemistry labs rather than morgues. His voice helped me concentrate upon his inner conflicts and I was hooked.
Where’s the Line between Teenage Self-absorption and Sociopathy?
An interesting question, one that this book brought up again and again for me. My theory is that we’re all self-absorbed monsters during those hormone-enraged teen years. I don’t think empathy is necessarily instinctual–it needs to be observed, learned, encouraged, and developed. Even when we see what looks like empathy in higher-functionining mammals, it’s probably been observed within their society and considered beneficial.
John Cleaver struggles with the same problems that most teenagers have; he feels isolated and undeserving of love while he struggles with teenage crushes and awkwardness. He likes to play with fire (supposedly a warning sign), but so does every other male I’ve met. He doesn’t know what to say in social situations—because he lacks empathy, or because he’s just a teenager learning his place in the world?
John’s been told he lacks empathy, just like those serial killers he reads about. His mother has sent John to a psychiatrist, who diagnoses “sociopathy.” But there are plenty of places in the novel where the reader wonders just how far from the norm John really is. For instance, when John is bullied and mocked in front of the girl he likes, he scares the bully by saying he lacks empathy and what that might mean. Later, his psychiatrist takes him to task for it:
“I hear you’ve been terrorizing the kids at school,” said Dr. Neblin. “I don’t want you using my diagnosis as a weapon to scare people with. We’re doing this so you can improve yourself, not so you can throw your pathology in other people’s faces.”
“I got a call from the school counselor yesterday,” said Neblin. “As far as I know, she and I are the only ones he’s talked to. You gave him nightmares, though.”
“It’s not funny, John, it’s a sign of aggression.”
“Rob is a bully,” I said. “He has been since third grade. If you want some signs of aggression, just follow him around for a few hours.”
“Aggression is normal in a fifteen-year-old boy,” said Neblin, “bully or otherwise. Where I get concerned is when that aggression comes from a sociopathic fifteen-year-old who’s obsessed with death–especially when, up until now, you’ve been a model of nonconfrontational behavior…”
By the end of that paragraph I was rolling on the floor laughing. John says some creepy things to Rob, but carefully avoids a direct threat. Rob is in-your-face mean and a bully, both physically and mentally, but he’s the normal one?
John is definitely on the edge… but he’s working hard to stay in society. In this book, he will indulge his sociopathic tendencies–but to protect his own family. He will suffer loss, he will discover he fears being abandoned, and he will learn to cry–while the reader roots for him to come out of the darkness and learn to be loved.
This novel was thought-provoking, as well as extremely entertaining. It builds into an edgy thriller that you can’t put down. The ending is satisfying so this can be a stand-alone read. There’s two more in the series if you want to find out if John Cleaver really does leave the darkness behind.