By Marty Mulrooney
Aimed at teenage readers, I Am Not A Serial Killer is Dan Wells’ debut novel. Yet, like all good books should be, it can be read and enjoyed by older readers too. That’s right! Parents who thought Harry Potter encouraged witchcraft, you now have something else to moan about. Because I have just read a book aimed at younger readers that is scary, funny and perhaps most importantly, all about serial killers. It is also so well written that as a twenty-something Stephen King fan, I can still appreciate it.
Horror gets boring fast nowadays. Vampires, werewolves, ghosts; at least they have some legacy to them, a little history to back them up, shadows in the corner that you might not be able to see but that scare you anyway. Yet most modern day horror is a mess, gore to shock without really digging deep enough at all. It shows too much.
‘You’re a really smart kid,’ said Margaret, ‘and I mean that. You’re probably the only student that’s already finished with the essay. But you can’t… it’s not normal, John. I was really hoping you’d grow out of this obsession with murderers.’
‘Not Murderers,’ I said. ‘Serial Killers.’
Dexter (both the book and TV character) finally got something right about horror. Real horror is your neighbour smiling as they pass you in the street, ready to drive into the night and kill a stranger, leaving you non-the-wiser. Horror is admitting that serial killers are people too: it is all too easy to reduce them to monsters, not the same as you and I. But sadly, they are. I was worried that this book might therefore be a take off Dexter from a younger perspective. Instead, we are given something altogether more original and horrifying, that also has the power to evoke a guilty chuckle as you pour over this darkly humorous tale of a child on the edge.
That’s where John Cleaver comes in, a 15 year old boy with Antisocial Personality Disorder from small-town USA, whose only joy is when his mother reluctantly lets him help prepare corpses for funeral viewings at the family morgue. He is NOT a serial killer, but only because he has rules. He imagines killing people all the time, and he knows full well he has many traits that align him with other serial killers that he has read about. So he builds a wall to keep his inner monster locked away. But is the wall strong enough?
I’d been fascinated – I tried not to use the word ‘obsessed’- with serial killers for a long time, but it wasn’t until my Jeffery Dahmer report in the last week of middle school that Mom and my teachers got worried enough to put me into therapy.
The opening of the book is a particularly powerful one. It is difficult to make a protagonist who feels nothing, who has immense potential for evil, become relatable to the reader. Yet Mr Wells pull it off admirably. Whether via John’s chats with his psychiatrist or the absence of his father… we realise that, apart from the small problem of nearly being a mass murderer, John Cleaver is a normal, albeit dysfunctional child. And then a serial killer comes to town and messes everything up.
I won’t spoil anything too much, but suffice to say John finds this development very interesting. On the one hand, this person is doing what he has always wanted to but never could. On the other hand, he wants to stop the killer: and his unique insight into the mind of a sociopath might just be the key towards helping him achieving this goal…
The drifter reached the bottom of the slope and stood for a moment by his bucket of tools. He went to pick it up, the stopped, glanced quickly back at the road, and slid his hand into his coat. When he pulled it back out he was holding a knife – not a switchblade or a hunting knife, just a long kitchen knife covered with rust and dirt. It looked like he’d stolen it from a junkyard.
Minor Spoiler Warning: Some people may not like the fact that the serial killer is something of a monster in an actual literal sense rather than just a figurative one. Personally, I really liked it: the rest of the story is written so well that it all feels realistic and plausible. It reminded me somewhat of a short story by John Connolly, entitled The Cancer Cowboy Rides. Spoiler Over.
The book later switches to a game of cat and mouse that is darkly delicious. It is interesting to have a protagonist that has moments that will repulse you, mixed with a serial killer that although a complete monster, can evoke moments of great empathy and pity. It is this originality and refusal to conform to the given norms of the genre that make I Am Not A Serial Killer truly shine.
Sometimes when I watch people trudging through their daily routines I think that fire is more alive than we are – brighter, hotter, more sure of itself and where it wants to go. Fire doesn’t settle; fire doesn’t tolerate; fire doesn’t ‘get by’. Fire does.
The other success of the novel is the way it makes you, the reader, engrossed with serial killers and the way their minds work as well. There is a morbid fascination throughout that strengthens and grows as you read. I guess we all have a little bit of John Cleaver in our heads. It certainly helps us align ourselves with this unusual protagonist. Which makes it even more scary when his internal thoughts go far beyond our own, into some deep, dark, dank dungeon within the depths of the human psyche.
Sure, the ending may feel slightly unbelievable (it is hard to explain away some of the events that occur without finding plot holes, as surely the police and the adult characters would want further explanation of what happened, especially from John) yet this is just a small faltering step in an otherwise powerhouse tale. The sequel Mr Monster is set to be released later this year and I literally cannot wait: this new franchise is one to get excited about, regardless of how old you are. As the front cover proclaims, this is a sickly-disturbing, darkly-comic thriller. Recommended.
9 OUT OF 10