More often than not I’ve had positive experiences with reading novels published by DarkFuse and that can be a bad thing. I hold DarkFuse novels to a higher standard than other small press-published novels since I trust that if the company has delivered in the past, it’ll always deliver. It’s an unfair standard, I admit, but I don’t think I’m unique in my views. If you were to ask other book lovers/book reviewers about their automatic buy books (you know, the ones that they will buy even before they know anything about the book based on who its author is or who published it), I’m sure others would tell you the same thing. Because DarkFuse is a company that I adore, that’s why I’m so disappointed in Sacrifice Island. It’s decent in the respect that there is a creature and there’s heavy supernatural elements directly relating to that creature and therefore it’s fun, but it’s not “Oh my god!” incredible. On its own terms that would rank Sacrifice Island as a decent read that after much hemming and hawing I would tell you all that in spite of its flaws, you have to read it at some point because it’s fun. The problem is, I expected more from a DarkFuse novel.
Sacrifice Island is about a not-a-couple couple, Alex and Jemma, who are travel writers with a focus on the world’s most haunted places. This article they are writing is for the last chapter of their soon-to-be-published book Spirits Around the World and they heard rumors of strange happenings on a secret island near Palawan in the Philippines. Little do they know that the stories of tourists who traveled to the island and didn’t return alive or at all were occurring during the writing of their book and they are at risk the moment they step on Palawan. Without spoiling the more exciting points of Sacrifice Island, let’s just say that there is truth to the rumors. Palawan is a tourist destination that seems like a fun up-and-coming alternative to cliched vacation spots with nothing sinister behind it, but the secret island’s name (Sakripisiyuhin Island) should be as much of a red flag to readers as it is to Alex. The two travel writers find that the more they research the secret island, the more in danger they are of becoming like all of the other victims. Ooh, spooky! Well, sort of.
One thing I genuinely liked about Sacrifice Island was that it introduced me to a new type of supernatural creature. I am not familiar with Filipino folklore so I love that I get to learn about a country’s stories and legends while reading horror fiction. So, what exactly is this creature? Alex explained in a succinct-ish overview that the creature on the island is an aswang, a vampire-like creature that kills a person’s physical body for food and then eats their ghosts as well. Kristin Dearborn has a brief article after her story that details more about the aswang, which is quite interesting. Apologies to anyone who is of Filipino origin should I get any of this wrong, by the way. Also, please feel free to contact Dearborn and set her straight. Disclaimer over, let’s talk about this particular aswang. According to Dearborn, the aswang is a usually female vampiric human/monster shapeshifting creature. It would traditionally be able to fly but her specific creation needed to be trapped on Sacrifice Island so she took liberties with the folklore by taking that ability away. Nowhere does she mention about the aswang being able to eat the ghosts of people it killed, but she does say that it likes to eat the newly dead. I would not mind reading more novels about this creature because it sounds way more interesting than the vampire character from European lore. I wouldn’t even mind if Dearborn wrote a follow-up novel that goes more in depth on the aswang. Unfortunately, Dearborn knows much more about this creature than what she includes in this novel and the absence of information is noticeable.
Now I have to discuss the obligatory “Dear god, why DarkFuse, why?” aspect of this book. Sacrifice Island was all about the absence of information. I would assume that the intention is to add to reader suspense, but that’s not the result of it all. I had questions that distracted me from the reading. These are some of my major questions:
- If Jemma was so sensitive to the supernatural (ghosts in particular), wouldn’t she have been sensitive to the aswang’s precense from the beginning? There’s no excuse for the author to leave out the explanation for how Jemma can sense certain aspects but not others. As a reader who is open-minded about the supernatural, I would believe it’s possible to have limitations. In my fiction, I want the character to be developed enough that I know why they have these limitations.
- In the end of the novel, Jemma becomes an aswang while the former aswang (named Virginia) dies. To Kristin Dearborn’s credit, there is explanation for how a human can become an aswang that involves a transference ritual. It was never clear in the novel how Virginia and Jemma do that transfer. All readers know for sure is that immediately after, Jemma becomes a hungry entity that wants to punish tourists to Sacrifice Island by means of eating them.
- Jemma’s travel writing partner Alex dies right before she becomes the new aswang. Who serves as Jemma’s “keeper” (essentially the human that will deliver tourists to her)? It made sense that Terry would be Virginia’s keeper since they were married for a long time but would Terry do it for a woman he didn’t know well?
DarkFuse novels don’t usually leave me hanging. I think it’s even worse with Sacrifice Island because Kristin Dearborn doesn’t have any follow-up novels to it so we’re left wondering all of these things with no satisfactory conclusion. I know that movies and TV shows are fans of cliffhangers, but it really is different when the product is a novel.
Instead of giving you all an official recommendation, I’m just going to leave this “Boo, DarkFuse!” review here and we’ll see what you all think.
First of all, I would like to give credit to Tim Miller for being versatile in his level of grossness and good taste or lack of and not always writing novels that are extreme body horror. While I felt uncomfortable reading his newer novel Dead to Writes (April Almighty) I didn’t have the same squeamish feeling reading Family Night, an earlier novel. Second of all, to get to the meat of my review, I honestly didn’t love Family Night even though it had the kind of plot that would usually make me fall in love with a horror novel.
I can’t help but continually compare Family Night to Dead to Writes and unfortunately Family Night is the weaker of Tim Miller’s cannibal serial killer novels. You’ll have to excuse the fact that I make these comparisons in the following review, especially since I try to avoid doing this because I hate it when other reviewers do it, but here I think it’s the only way to write a complete review. Family Night and Dead to Writes are so eerily similar in that both novels feature families of cannibal serial killers that I wondered if Family Night was a precursor of Dead to Writes and Miller is going to introduce us to an entire extended family of torture-friendly serial killer cannibals. That’s not exactly correct, but I feel safe in saying that Miller’s shtick is writing about cannibal serial killers. In Family Night there is a man, Eddie Mason, who is a Texas cannibal serial killer. Apparently he’s one of the worst, having made kills of over fifty people. The police are boggled by how he does it because he’s only one man, right? Yes, Eddie is only one man. This isn’t one of those “evil twin” novels. He’s able to produce such a high body count because his two children Brandi and Jeffrey are apprentices in the art of killing. Not to get too opinionated in a plot summary, but I would’ve loved to read more about the offspring, such as how exactly they were trained. Miller tells us that Eddie started the killing trade like any other serial killer, first experimenting with animals and then moving to humans. Once he got successful in making his kills, he named himself The Mask. We don’t know how Brandi and Jeffrey were first talked into making kills and how it became so important to them The only substantial thing we know about the children is that from their training they’ve come to believe that law enforcement officers are pests that need exterminated.
The thing that attracted me to Family Night was the novel’s official synopsis. I wouldn’t necessarily say that it’s inaccurate, but it gives the wrong impression of who’s important in the novel. We don’t have an official hero character that survives to the end. At first I thought it would be Julie Castillo, the not-a-homicide detective investigating the disappearance of a woman working at a strip club that then tangles with Eddie Mason and his crazy offspring. She would’ve been the most logical choice. When the longest-lasting survivor was Sarah Howard, Julie’s girlfriend who worked at a bar and grill, I had mixed thoughts on that. The irony of a grill employee killing a cannibal serial killer is amusing to me, but not so much that I can’t find it a questionable plot twist. Now, I’m not trying to say that Sarah can’t be strong in her own right, but I would think that as a detective Julie would have more strength and skill at dealing with serial killers than Sarah would. The “hero” of the novel, then, is Officer Ray Smith, who is only significant as the one that discovers the crime scene. In the end, Ray Smith kills himself because the events of “The Mask”/”The Alamo Cannibal” (a later nickname for Eddie Mason). In short, this is a novel where rocks fall and everyone dies in a figurative sense. I’m not sure I like this very much. I’m all for bleak endings provided that the novel has led up to such an ending, but in Family Night it seems more like “So what was the point of this novel?” I didn’t exactly love Dead to Writes, Tim Miller’s latest cannibal serial killer(s) novel, but the one thing it did so much better than Family Night is end with surviving characters and a point to finish the novel and then keep reading the series.
I’m wondering how I would recommend or not recommend Family Nights based on its own merits. Since I’m personally interested in reading fiction about children/teen serial killers, I would say that it might appeal to myself and others for having enough of that quality throughout the novel to make it interesting. It’s just that like I said earlier, I would’ve wanted more information about the offspring’s killer training to make it meet that criteria. Keep this warning in mind if you, like me, want the young serial-killers-in-training to be front and center. Readers that like sad or bleak endings are probably a better audience, to be honest.