Daniel Kraus’s Rotters is an unconventional morbid tale of life, told through the obsession of death. It’s an ambitious take on a coming-of-age narrative that’s both rough on the edges and yet full of heart. Kraus takes his readers on a journey of the macabre in search of the beauty in life, which ironically is found beneath the gravestones, six feet within the Earth. It’s the artistry of grave robbing that teaches the book’s protagonist, Joey Crouch, that the things most people value, end up staying behind for the living to claim. Rotters reminds us of our mortality and how we are continually rotting away until our bodies are finally laid to rest. Rotters is a complex story of strained family relationships, friends, love, heartbreak, and most importantly, it questions our place in this world. Daniel Kraus printed Rotters in 2012 and is comprised of roughly 460 pages; the book was published by Ember, a division of Random House Inc.
According to Daniel Kraus’s official website, the synopsis for Rotters is as follows, “Grave robbing. What kind of monster would do such a thing? It’s true that Leonardo da Vinci did it, Shakespeare wrote about it, and the resurrection men of nineteenth-century Scotland practically made it an art. But none of this matters to Joey Crouch, a sixteen-year-old straight-A student living in Chicago with his single mom. For the most part, Joey’s life is about playing the trumpet and avoiding the daily humiliations of high school. Everything changes when Joey’s mother dies in a tragic accident and he is sent to rural Iowa to live with the father he has never known, a strange, solitary man with unimaginable secrets. At first, Joey’s father wants nothing to do with him, but once father and son come to terms with each other, Joey’s life takes a turn both macabre and exhilarating.”
Given Daniel Kraus’s history with the horror genre, with such titles including The Monster Variation (2009) and following Rotters with Scowler (2014) and The Shape of Water (2108), it comes to no surprise that Kraus would include horror elements to provide Rotters the dark undertones needed to effectively tell a chilling story. Joey Crouch is a character that many of us readers can relate to, with the exception of his particular circumstances of grave robbing. He’s a teenager struggling to fit in at a new school, constantly trying to figure out his identity and place in this world, smart, and of course, falls prey to the relentless heartache of unrequited love. Joey’s character in Rotters takes several shifts throughout the novel, which I found not only refreshing, but very engaging; I’d understand and support his decisions, then I’d be upset with his choices and where they’d lead him. The relationship between Joey and his father, Ken Harnett, takes a snail’s pace of development within the first half of the novel. In fact, the first half of Rotters focuses primarily on Joey’s relationship with Ken as well as his social status as the inconspicuous “freak” teenager in high school. It’s not until the second half of Rotters that we begin to notice a change of pace and direction of our central characters, as well as a developing conflict.
Kraus’s writing is exceptionally impressive as his ability to describe characters and their environments brings about the dark atmospheric tone that makes Rotters such a unique story. Kraus’s “voice” takes control of every scenario as his narrative, as clear as glass, allows readers to peer inside the story with an imagination armed with distinguishable style. Rotters is a novel that challenges readers to reflect on our own mortality as well as the decisions that either place value in the things that matter versus the things that don’t. Daniel Kraus has managed to write a novel that reflects the literary voices of the past, as Rotters borrows elements from the macabre such as the likes of Edgar Allan Poe, the obsession with the dead as with Mary Shelley’s Dr. Frankenstein and the haunting atmosphere told in eerie detail just as M.R. James ghost stories. You may see Rotters listed as “Young Adult Fiction”, but don’t let that stop you from giving Kraus’s novel a chance. It’s a dark flirtation with death and how the coming-of-age of protagonist Joey Crouch provides insight on the living, through the dead. If you can muster the courage to read through the first half of the novel’s slow development, you’ll be in for a stellar second half. Thanks for reading. Enjoy the novel’s trailer below.
This unsettling journey leaves quite a few lingering questions in this psychological, philosophical, thriller. I initially came across I’m Thinking of Ending Things, by Lain Reid, through a horror podcast, Shock Waves Podcast, by Blumhouse. The novel’s title lends itself to a variety of interpretations. (more…)
“Oh, the darkness. If only he could enter back into it! If only he could undo his deeds.” – Thomas Olde Heuvelt, Hex
Evil can manifest in numerous ways, whether in plain sight or lurking behind a veil of deceit. For those familiar with the lore of witches, particularly in the United States, mass hysteria was a common result of the negative stigma associated with such a practice. In retrospect, it was understood that people, specifically women, fell victim to the accusations of sorcery, ultimately leading to their deaths. (more…)
Collective fear and anxiety among the American people during the 1980’s influenced pop culture in many ways. As tensions between the Soviets and the United States increased, also known as the Cold War era, the fear of an impending world war and invasion crept among the minds of most Americans during this period. Propaganda and war films were released in all forms of media, attracting those who were most fearful. Media within action, sci-fi, and horror genres reflected only a fragment of the attitudes and perspectives among mainstream culture. In particular, the 1980’s observed the horror genre’s embracing of invasion in the form of body-snatching aliens attempting to dominate the human race. Film titles such as Night of the Creeps, They Live, The Thing, and Invaders from Mars painted only a small portion of a larger canvas illustrating the anxieties of the American people. Ronald Reagan’s description of an ‘evil empire’ frightened me as a child with the news injecting fear of a possible nuclear war and invasion. Perhaps these fears affected the pop culture of the 1980’s subconsciously; thereby, attracting so many to the sci-fi/horror productions that played on our anxieties.
Fast-forward to the year 2013 with author Adam Casare’s novel Video Night. Taking place during the 1980’s, Video Night lends itself to the eerie nature of alien invasion by illustrating extraterrestrial entities as puppeteers, planning to conquer the human race. As each human succumbs to the invasive alien life form by means of implantation, those who have not been infected quickly notice the strange occurrences. As they go about their normal routines, our protagonists, Billy and Tom, observe the townspeople’s behavior drastically changing. With video night approaching (a habitual retreat of horror movies and booze—at least on Tom’s part), the familiar faces of the townspeople are soon distorted by unfamiliar expressions and conduct. As the alien invasion quickly takes hold of neighbors, friends and even loved ones, our protagonists are left with no one to trust…and nowhere to run.
The narrative in Video Night is aptly organized, in which the plot is divided between the antagonist, an evil alien intent on world domination, and the protagonists, Billy and Tom. Invasion and social hierarchy are significant themes that reflect the tumultuous socio-political climate, stirring seemingly unending unrest. As nearly every living creature is threatened by a predatory force, the phrase “survival of the fittest” comes to mind. In Video Night, those who have fallen victim to the alien infection demonstrate different reactions; some are able to resist complete invasion momentarily, while others lose themselves beneath the cloud of alien consciousness. The idea of a symbiotic relationship quickly diminishes as the hosts become less dependent on certain vital functions of human organs in a gradual process of physiological alteration.
Just as the alien parasites sought to increase in numbers in order to achieve world dominance, the human race seemed utterly oblivious of the matter. If perhaps it was not Cesare’s intention to reflect the social turbulence and anxieties of the American people, it is still important to note the impact that “alien invasion” horror had on the public, especially during the 1980’s. Video Night successfully captures and effuses the frightful familiarity of loneliness, terror, and suspense just as it boasts on the front cover design. Cesare manages to captivate readers with very likeable characters, as their development during the story felt so natural. One can only grip these pages so tightly for fear of what will become of those who walk among the alien invaders. Get your hands on Video Night.
“Don’t try to make me believe that I killed a man when I know I killed a wolf” – Larry Talbot, The Wolfman
Several interpretations of lycanthropy can be found in a variety of mediums ranging from literature, folklore, film, and television. While I studied European history as an undergraduate, I took initiative to research the origins of the man-wolf. Coming across several references to Greek mythology, the earliest and most notable work I found was written by Ovid; a short story in his epic narrative known as Metamorphosis. The tale explores the evil nature of Lycaon who murders his own child and feeds the flesh to the god, Zeus. As punishment, he is transformed into a wolf and left to roam the world. Using punishment as a motif parallels the Christian belief of original sin, in which humans inherit the consequence as a result of Adam and Eve’s disobedience.
The comparison between original sin and the curse of the lycan share a common dilemma; there seems to be no escaping either the sin or the curse. Just as one is born with original sin to pay the consequence of it, those cursed will endure the punishment, or consequence, stemming from the original lycan. I’ll revisit this point later without giving too much detail to avoid spoiling Those Across The River.
The curse of the man-wolf has been revisited for quite some time with the burden usually weighing heavily on the protagonist. In the 1941 version of The Wolfman, Maleva, the gypsy woman, explains to Larry Talbot, “Whoever is bitten by a werewolf and lives, becomes a werewolf himself.” To no fault of those who are bitten, the curse continues to metastasize like a disease, spreading throughout its victim’s entire being. As a child, I favored the wolf-man above other creatures of the night. From the silver screen such as The Wolfman, Silver Bullet, An American Werewolf in London, to the USA television series Werewolf, I was immediately drawn to anything wolf-man related. This brings me to Christopher Buehlman’s novel, Those Across The River.
“I was murdered, an unnatural death, and now I walk the Earth in limbo until the werewolf’s curse is lifted.” – American Werewolf in London
I approached this novel with absolutely no clue of its plot. My assumptions deceived me the further I read, yet the more intrigued I became as the plot unraveled. Set in the earlier half of the 20th century, Frank Nichols arrives in Whitbrow, Georgia with hopes of gathering material for his upcoming book revolving around the town’s history, including his grandfather’s plantation. The more acquainted he becomes with the townsfolk, the more reason for Frank to leave Whitbrow before he’s unable to turn away from what he uncovers. Those Across The River deals with several monsters—racism, infidelity, slavery, and of course, werewolves.
Burhlman commits to the general mythology of lycans by injecting all the common traits such as killed by silver or infecting victims by biting. What I found extremely appealing was the lack of “polished” villains. In recent literature, as well as media, the focus of character development, or rather dynamic characters, has shifted to less complex individuals with emphasis on physical charm. Burhlman has stripped this non-sense and effectively crafted characters that are more believable and outright frightening. Burhlman intricately crafts an elaborate universe out of dark tones and morbid themes. Although the book itself is not entirely dark, it definitely reveals a dark side of human nature.
As mentioned earlier, examining the theme of punishment and its comparable similarities to the Christian belief of original sin, the relationship becomes rather noticeable. In Those Across The River, punishment seems to be the only non-biased force affecting every character in this story. Once the plot begins to reveal its true nature, everything seems to fall nicely in place. The story’s unraveling was worth the wait allowing me to be fully invested in the main characters, dreading any possible step in the wrong direction. Christopher Burhlman has successfully written a truly frightening novel, and one that deserves to sit amongst similar works such as Joe Hill. Once you start reading this werewolf tale…what will you find across the river?
“And who are my real friends? Have they all got the bends? Am I really sinking…this slow.” – The Bends, Radiohead
In many cases, fears can be considered irrational and are readily disregarded. I find the topic of fear important due to its effect on the human psyche. Fear can stretch across a broad spectrum of anxieties that affect the way we behave in certain situations.
Stanley Kubrick, director of The Shining, stated in an interview with Playboy magazine regarding fear and the mortality of man, “If man really sat back and thought about his impending termination, and his terrifying insignificance and aloneness in the cosmos, he would surely go mad, or succumb to a numbing sense of futility.”
Reliability in Kubrick’s claims stand dutifully noted if watching The Shining, starring Jack Nicholson. If one were to observe the paradox in the film, an enormous hotel located in the mountains yet its inhabitants are trapped and unable to escape the confines of the Overlook Hotel, it would seem claustrophobia and severe paranoia serve as inspiration. Enclosure can perhaps create a form of imprisonment of the human mind without realizing a distinction between reality and fantasy. Is the audience witnessing fragments of guilt erupted from the character’s subconscious, or merely dealing with a ghost story? This similar theme had me posing the same questions when reading The Deep, by Nick Cutter.
The Deep places our protagonist, Luke, in the midst of a sweeping plague known as the Gets that has effected the human population worldwide. Without a cure in the foreseeable future, our main character is sent eight miles below the ocean surface to a research facility known as the Trieste. What awaits Luke in the darkness of the deep ocean is more terrifying than anything he has experienced. Is something, or someone, out to get Luke? Are the walls of the Trieste closing in on him? Are the visions just figments of his imagination? Has the deep ocean taken Luke as his prisoner? Or perhaps the Gets?
“Human’s weren’t built for this. There’s a reason nothing lives down here.”
The location of the Trieste, eight miles below the ocean surface, has an immense effect on our characters as they deal with the outcomes of such extreme pressures. Restlessness, sudden cold sweats and fatigue seem to be the first signs of the Trieste’s effects. It’s interesting to witness the unfolding of The Deep’s plot as questions remain unanswered; leaving readers with a sense that our characters may possibly be suffering from the effects of the Gets, or perhaps severe paranoia springing from claustrophobia.
Nick Cutter successfully engages his readers with his use of multiple layers in the plot. Without distracting readers by filling pages with nonsense, Nick Cutter effectively uses the various subplots like the pieces of a puzzle. Cutter’s clever use of words to describe the fear of darkness and enclosure choked the breath out of my lungs. At many points during the novel, I found myself unable to sit still in cold sweat, as it gave the feeling of needles pricking my skin.
The dark shadows outstretched across the walls, like long twisted fingers ready to drag its next victim into obscurity. This was the feeling I had when reading The Deep. Constantly looking over my shoulder without the words on the pages ever acknowledging a moment’s peace, I too felt like I was trapped. Nick Cutter’s The Deep is a worthy read and most definitely an author to keep in mind for his future work. The true horror that lies in The Deep is more than any grotesque monster, disease, apparition, or fear of the dark. It’s the monster in our minds that plagues our every thought and plays on our fears. What’s really happening in The Deep? Read to find out.