Trigger warnings: animal abuse and gore mentioned

So, I wish that I had seen the original cover because that would have answered some of my questions. Not all of them, oh heavens no, but a good lot of them. Like, what time period are we in? I asked myself this over and over because it was unabashedly unclear. With references to Dick Tracy, Lana Turner, and MTV – it could be anywhere from the 1930’s to 1990’s (let’s get real, after the 90’s there really wasn’t an MTV anymore). With kids going to the corner store to get a coke and ride around town, it sounds like the 1960’s. But in one instance, it makes fun of the 1950’s, as if it were an era from a hundred years ago. It is both in the past and in the future. It is a paradox!

Oh wait, here’s the original cover:

Does evil accumulate interest? Because I have some student loans…

Okay, great. Late 80’s, early 90’s – got it. Poof, I’m there. And I’m deducing that it was written by an older person because, again, a nine year old boy doesn’t know what the hell a Dick Tracy is in the late 80’s-early 90’s (trust me, no one saw that film and everyone who has has long since blocked it from their memory).

Oh, what, you want to know about the book? Oh, yes, I should review it since I read it. Or rather, listened to it, via Audible. This is the Audible cover:

When evil makes a deal, it collects…in stock pictures

I have to say, it doesn’t do it any justice at all. Even for a book that I’m about to give two Cthulhus to, it deserves the original cover because it explains the book so much better and is just a beautiful image. It primes you for what the book is truly about and what to expect – white people problems witchcraft.

All the characters…from the first three chapters…

The Plot:

There are a million characters, I’m going to narrow them down to three: Nancy, Lana, and Spiro.

Lana is the new girl in town, just moved from Texas after her mother’s messy divorce and work relocation. She is beautiful, but down-to-earth, and trying to find new friends while her mother resettles and her younger brother is a straight-up asshole. She is just the girl next door, literally.

Next door lives Spiro, a boy Lana’s age, with developmental and intellectual disabilities. He is shy, awkward, and horrendously bullied at school, regardless of his enormous stature. Growing up fatherless, his mother is cruel and archaic, punishing him for every imagined slight and then often neglecting him. He becomes infatuated with Lana, due to her kindness.

Nancy is a popular girl in the school, brash and unafraid of anything, she goes into the crypt one night of the local cursed family and finds a book. The local legends say that the family were witches and had sacrificed a baby to the devil for powers and immortality, and intrigued, Nancy begins to dabble with the book, to see if the rumors are true.

All three of their lives interweave when mysterious things around town keep happening – could Nancy be the cause of it? Or perhaps the family isn’t as dead as everyone thought?

Thoughts:

Okay, first off, the beginning 3/4ths of this book are pretty uninteresting; it’s mainly setting up “character” where there just isn’t any. As stated, there are so many characters that it’s ridiculous, even the parents of the kids are introduced, and then other characters are introduced half-way in. It’s a mess. Honestly, a lot of it could have been cut down and wouldn’t be missed.

Won’t someone look past her Texan accent and just give her a chance?

To boot, all of the characters (except for Lana) are awful, insufferable people. It’s hard to listen to them when they are moldy garbage people who are just as interesting as the little bits of toilet paper stuck to the tp roll. Lana is constantly surrounded by young men who want to sexually harass her, her brother who literally wants to ruin her life, and the clique-ish girls at the school. But at the same time, it’s hard to identify with her because we’re constantly reminded how utterly smoking hot she is.

Most of the reviews I’ve read love the first part and hate the second, or never even get to the second. The “second” is the last 1/4th and was infinitely better because it went bawls-to-the-walls insane and gory. Fowler is actually very good at writing gore and, hoo boy, there needed to be 80% more gore and spooky and 120% less talking about nothing and getting Cokes at the burger shop.

MAJOR bummer, your insides are out – how will you go to prom now?

The gore is mostly body horror, but there’s plenty of animal murder (which a lot of people found offensive by the comments I read) and…I’m not sure how to put this…gross baby-making-type stuff. You could find it vulgar, I mostly just found it erring on the side of sexist (and yes, I know this was a lady writer). Eyeballs do explode. I found that delightful. I also was entertained when a character’s naughty-bits started “spraying blood all over the living room like an unmanned firehouse”.

There are a few clever ideas that I won’t let spoil the story but, lightly, I think how some of the demons manifest and are different characters would have been more terrific if better explored and savored. I always find demons as characters interesting; unfortunately, these were the typical, standard issue demons, which is almost ironic because there’s a point when someone does a bit with The Exorcist, and then Fowler just kind of copies it later. It would have been great to set up the human characters in the first part, slowly trickle the demons in with their own personalities so that we’re acquainted with them, and then go to the climax of the story with everything mixed.

Just a demon

Honestly, I think this would have worked better as a short story or novella. There was too much fluff to get to where we wanted and needed to be.

Brain Roll Juice:

I’m going to get this out of the way first because it didn’t sit well and now that I have a timeline I can say, “Don’t give me ‘it was just different times’ bull-hockey.” It was, indeed, different times. Different, racist and sexist times. But before those fun times, let’s get to that other thing stuck in my craw – the treatment of Spiro. And I’m not talking about the kids in the book.

I am well aware, thank you

Spiro has some kind of developmental and/or intellectual disability, brought on from when his mother contracted German measles/Rubella and he, in utero, suffered from encephalitis (inflammation of the brain). He is seventeen, over six feet and two hundred pounds, and physically and mentally abused by his peers, teachers, and mother. He is in the same classes without additional support as his peers. He is punished with detention for “daydreaming”. He is called “’Tardo” and “freak” within earshot of teachers and authority figures. He is often physically abused by his mother.

He also turns into a disgusting creep and is painted in so broad and stereotypical a brush that I found it offensive.

From “gentle giant” stereotype to “creeper of the only nice girl to me” stereotype to “snapping from repression” stereotype to “spoiler spoiler spoiler” stereotype. There isn’t anything clever or sincere about the character and that chips my paint. He is the only diverse character in the whole bunch and he has absolutely nothing of substance to say or do. I was furious because I was excited to see a rare neuro-diverse character in horror as, what I thought, was a lead role (the first chapter starts with him – he introduces the story), or at least a sympathetic role.

And no, that ending doesn’t factor in. Without going into details, let’s just say that his send off was very similar to the classic moment in TV history:

And then Spiro still had to do the runway show, even though he had been eliminated

The same sentiment can be said with the wildly racist comments that drop out of flipping nowhere, like, “that’s why Japanese people’s eyes are slanted…all the books they read”, “Is an African’s hair kinky?” (used like “does a bear sh– in the woods?”), and “ghetto blaster” as a sobriquet for a boombox. Or the introduction to the only black character at the end of the book that actually calls his peers, “chillun”.

Poor Michael Reaves, the narrator, for having to cough out these lines and make the best out of it. He’s even had to narrate a gastric sleeve cookbook and probably had a better time with that.

Pictured: More fun than racist old horror

But let’s take a look back – this was published in 1992. The year that Dr. Mae Jemison became the first African American woman to travel into space; that the Kentucky Supreme Court held that laws criminalizing same-sex sodomy are unconstitutional (and accurately predicted that other states and the nation would eventually rule the same way); and a TWO full years after Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 was signed into law.

So, what am I saying? I’m saying that you’re right. The times were different and changing. This book has aged and will continue to do so. Even if this is just a pulp horror novel, it’s also a time capsule. I can read this and watch a movie like “Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark” and see how far our narrative focus has changed. Call it SJW-appeasement or diversity-pandering, but it has changed. It’s no longer just 311 pages filled with average high school melodrama with occasional exploding eyeballs, but showing new facets from new perspectives to keep the same stories we keep telling each other fresh and engaging to more people.

And that leads me to wonder, what would these characters look like now? How would we react to them? How would they change the narrative if they were written today? And do people even know who Dick Tracy is anymore?

Is this Dick Tracy?

Bottom-line:

If you like gore, it’s drudgery to get through the first part. If you like character development, there isn’t much of any. If you like late-80’s to early-90’s nostalgia…I’d still advise against it. It’s not great and aged even worse.

2 out of 5 stars (2 / 5)
About the Author

When not howling Tina Turner classics with Glorious Spouse under the hazy Detroit moon, J.M. Brannyk (a.k.a. Boxhuman) reviews mostly supernatural and slasher films from the 70's-90's and is HauntedMTL's dubious Voice of Reason. Aside from writing on HauntedMTL, Brannyk dips into the podcasts, runs the show on 'The Combobox', and is composer to some of HauntedMTL's podcast themes. They've also have contributed to other websites such as Gayly Dreadful's Pride 2020 and Nightmarish Conjurings.

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