The Short Version: Working in Detroit, Detective Gabi Versado has seen some shit – but nothing quite like this most recent corpse. The top half of a boy stitched to the bottom half of a deer, it’s only the beginning of something awful and Versado, along with a cast of wonderfully broken characters, will have to face all kinds of darkness if they want to keep their city safe.
The Review: I happened to see Jim Jarmusch’s Only Lovers Left Alive just after beginning this novel – another story of artistic monsters in Detroit, albeit a more ethereal one. And I find that there is something gripping about the ruined city as a place to really dig into some creepy shit, not in a necessarily post-apocalyptic way but rather in a “what happens if humanity has to revert a smidge” way. Lauren Beukes certainly uses the setting to her advantage in the novel: it allows her characters room to be more raw, more full of dangerous potential than characters living in another city. This story would be different in New York, LA, Chicago, or really any other city in the US. And that’s not always true – writers often use cities bring some color to a story but you change a few landmarks, shift the local tone a bit, and New York becomes Boston becomes Chicago becomes New Orleans and so on. Whereas Detroit is as much a character here as any of the human beings. Just check out some of her research photos on her Tumblr and you’ll see what I mean.
The thing about it is, Detroit is broken. And the people who live there, at least in the context of this fictional version, are broken too. You might even go so far as to say they’re all monstrous: because none of them are angels, that’s for damn sure. And it’s astonishing just how much Beukes manages to work in about the darker side of human nature while never letting go of the urgency of an altogether gripping main story. We’re looking at the homeless, domestic violence, pedophiles, sexual harassment, sexual assault, sexism in the workplace, divorce, teenage angst, and the list goes on – and each topic gets some serious attention. She’s not just rattling them off in order to say “oh, look, I talked about that!” and it’s all the more impressive that absolutely none of them feel that way. This is a horror novel about a twisted killer, sure, but it’s also a horror novel about how easy it is for humanity to start going a little feral. It doesn’t even have to happen in a city like Detroit, although living on the edge of the ruins helps nudge people over. And you see that: it’s in the prose, in the descriptions, in the actions. There is a sense that if these characters lived anywhere else, their lives might not be quite like this. Even Jonno, who has fled New York and ended up here – he’s here because he wants to, in one way or another, hit bottom.
But they’re also all trying. Gabi is a single mom and a cop – wedded to the job and, yeah, she knows she could be doing more for her daughter. Meanwhile, her daughter is going through all of the shit that young girls go through in high school (she’d get on great with the girls in The Fever) – and it’s scary to realize that, with the Internet in play, these kids are going through a hell of a lot more than I went through. And it wasn’t that long ago that I was in high school. Jonno is a dick, a major fuck-up – but not maliciously. He’s just the sort of man-child that we’ve encouraged in this country. And TK…. I don’t even want to say anything about TK because I don’t want you to be spoiled at all. He’s the sort of Detroit figure that gives you hope, not just for his city but for the whole human race. He is a good man, or at least he’s trying to be. They all are. And they don’t all get there, at least not by the end of the novel – but what’s more human than that?
Now for the scary bits. When I met Ms. Beukes briefly at BEA, we chatted about scary stories and I asked her if this was on the level or more/less scary than The Shining Girls – and she said it certainly scared her more while she was working on it. (She also drew a small door on the title page of the novel, which didn’t scare me until I started reading.) And I can see why. From the very get-go, you’re tossed into something truly horrific and the descriptions don’t let up. The deaths in this novel, the oddly presented ‘monsters’ (titular, although I’d argue the human characters are all monstrous in one way or another), are the stuff of nightmares if you let them be. And she doesn’t shy away from really getting into the details – not in a gross-out way, but in a way that sends a chill down your spine and maybe turns your face white. The only quibble is that the monster doing all of this (introduced somewhat slowly, although it’s obvious from the get-go really – we spend time with him as a main character, just as much as we do Gabi or Jonno or TK or Layla) is a little… let’s say impressionistic, in keeping with the art-world themes. It becomes more clear as the novel goes on just what’s going on – although clear is a generous word. Let’s say instead that the writing clarifies even as the mind is forced to continue to wonder just what and how this thing is. But regardless, the monster is one of Beukes’ best creations. There aren’t any simple explanations or answers – and that makes the trippy, terrifying ending even scarier, the sense that this thing can barely be described in ways that we might understand.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. Some of the language around the killer gets a little too floaty in the middle, before things really start racing together – but this book is nearly unputdownable. Beukes pulls together several genres underneath the horror umbrella, giving the story far more heft than you’d expect, and as a result it just flies by. The characters are all vividly real, the plot gripping, and the setting is essential – a true case of the novel firing on all cylinders. It’s the sort of book that will give you nightmares, but also a ray of hope as the sun comes up. You just have to get to the part where the sun does come up first.