In the wake of a terrible accident, something monstrous is haunting this family; something terrible, many armed, whose dendrite-arms have a sparking claw for everyone.
The best cheesy horror films walk the balance between honest emotion and gory schlock. The evils unleashed by the Necronomicon remain effective, still manage to scare after all these years, because the overblown terror of tree-rape represents something real. This novella leans hard into that well-worn premise and produces something which is certainly heartfelt and occasionally deeply upsetting. Here’s the plot, in summary: a 37-year-old father suffers a severe stroke which is witnessed by his young son. Over time, as the family falls apart, the boy becomes convinced that his father has been replaced by a demon and (like the heroes in his favorite movies) he decides to do something about it.
The story starts off slowly, taking the time to really immerse us in the lives of this mid-90’s lower-middle-class family. We have time to soak in all the details. The parents both work. The house is pre-fab (with washable nylon siding) and it’s situated at the edge of town, where the land was cheap. There is an irony to the fact that this family is ‘just scraping by’ but they own their own house whereas most of my generation will probably have to resign themselves to an inescapable series of rentals, but that was the 90’s for you. The father, Gary, blows all of his excess money on gadgets (the new phone he just bought isn’t hooked up yet, and that delays his treatment) and the readers are treated to glimpses into their personalities. The mother is unthinkingly devout; Rachel, the sister, is tasting the first sweet tang of teenage rebelliousness; the father draws the son, Marcus, into playfully conspiring against his wife which leads, eventually, to the boy being badly traumatised. The deliberate pacing pays off in reader-anxiety, because we all know that something horrible is coming, and we know that the boy will be utterly unable to stop it.
When the stroke happens, it’s presented as being appropriately traumatic nor all concerned. The father twists and drools as he loses control of his body. We see his brain short-circuiting. Marcus cowers in fear. The lighting is apocalyptic (and why not? A world is ending.) and there is some lovely ambiguity around the boy’s intentions in performing the (brutal/bloody) screwdriver tracheotomy which saves his father’s life.
The monster (hallucination?) that Marcus sees that night sticks around as the story progresses but it inhabits the edges of the text, existing primarily as an excuse to watch the mental and physical degradation of the family as they, in their various ways, seek relief from, and meaning within, the wreck their lives have become.
The mother works two jobs and manages to (mostly) keep her temper. She leans on the church for physical relief. Indeed, the priest in this story is terribly rational about evil, even when he probably could have helped his charges more by acknowledging that there is succour to be found in the exclamations found in ‘irrational’ stories.
The sister attempts to aid and protect everyone, before her own sense of worthlessness and incapacity sends her previously muted rebellion into hard-drinking overdrive. It is worth noting that even when Rachel spends most of her time out with her friends, her impulse is to try to protect her brother from himself. Familial bonds are tough roots, in this text.
The most disturbing element in this book is the relationship between Marcus and his father. In the beginning, Gary fosters a small, secret conspiracy against the mother. Marcus fakes an illness, so that they can be alone together. It is possible to read guilt, a sense of unadmitted responsibility for the stroke, into Marcus’s determination to ‘cleanse’ his father of the demon. It is clear that the boy is also dealing with a tremendous amount of anxiety about his father’s painfully liminal mental state. Gary’s body is there. His mind is not there. As far as the children are concerned, Gary is suspended, permanently, in the no-space between life and death, between earth and hell. Marcus has a deep desire for the solidity of an irrefutable answer. He needs there to be a demon, because demons in horror films can be permanently, decisively defeated. Horror films are all inherently optimistic. If there are Devils, there must be Angels. Brain injuries, nerve damage: these things are permanent. They can’t be beaten. They can’t be ‘won’. It is unspeakably painful to be a child and be forced to witness a parent floundering in this new incapacity.
All of Marcus’s actions, horrific as they are to watch, can be traced to a child’s need for security.
And I have to tell you, some of the scenes in this book are terrible to see. And the worst ones don’t involve a demon.
When I was a little older than Marcus, I watched my severely disabled, chronically ill mother go through morphine withdrawal. It was Christmas Eve. I held her down, in her delirium, while she was shaking, because she was tearing the flesh from her legs in strips. After reading this book, I had a nightmare about that sight, about her skin (white and red) caught under her nails for the first time in years.
Horror films don’t bother me, because they are allegorical. They speak in the clear, psychologically safe, language of myth. There is one scene in this book which absolutely refuses to speak in that language. It was traumatic for me. Possibly it would be so for anyone who had witnessed anything like that.
But that’s exactly why people should be reading it.
Gary is not the monster in this story. There were a few pages where I was terribly worried that the author was going to dehumanize a disabled person, but that absolutely never happens. Most of the worst terror that readers feel happens because we empathize with Gary as someone who is trapped in a horrific situation with someone who intends only good, but who could absolutely destroy him.
There is a deep, abiding honesty to this book.
And the art supports it. The line work here is detailed and deeply nuanced. Strain shows on the face of the mother. Resting expressions alter as the year takes its toll. In terms of design, it looks like something that was pulled from the pages of an 80’s horror zine, and that’s perfect for the content. Arjuna Susini is an artist to watch.
This is a wonderful piece of work, all things considered. Pick it up, if you can.
Reviewed by Bethany W Pope
Beneath the body horror, marvellously gory art, and genuine metaphysical terror of this book there is a story which has been told with love and honesty. It's difficult to read, in the very best sense, but well worth the effort required to endure it. Do pick it up.
The Replacer: Home is Where the Horror is!
Writing - 9/109/10
Storyline - 8.5/108.5/10
Art - 8/108/10
Color - 8/108/10
Cover Art - 8.5/108.5/10
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