I love a good cannibal serial killer novel. You’d be surprised to learn that although I’m not a “gore hound” and in fact would rather read supernatural or psychological thriller novels, there is something I crave about a good cannibal serial killer horror novel. It kills me to admit that in spite of having the potential for a delicious cannibal serial killer novel, I did not love Consumed by author Matt Shaw. This is the best way I can describe Consumed: It was disturbing as promised, but not disturbing in the way I like my cannibal serial killer novels disturbing.
The plot is pretty standard. Five twenty-somethings who were once good friends but are beginning to fall apart go on a road trip in hopes of rebuilding their friendship. The main character is Michael, an aimless, hard-headed person. Michael’s best friend is Joel, an auto mechanic (oh, the irony!) who would smoke his life away if he could. Lara is a sharp-tongued woman who had once dated Joel and still feels the burn of their break-up. Hayley is a beauty queen who is so consumed (pun not intended but rock with it) with how she compares to other women that she doesn’t notice larger issues. Charlotte is a sweetheart who should not even be a part of the group and is viewed as a little sister that needs protected from the real world. Dan is just there, not someone who had a role other than being the first to die. The road trip doesn’t start off well with Lara and Joel bickering and continues to get worse when the car breaks down and they are rescued by two twenty-something brothers Johnny and Stephen who take them to the family house for a meal. Little do the five friends know that they’re the main course.
There are scenes of cannibalism in the novel, which I appreciated since that was why I wanted to read this book in the first place. Descriptions of a young woman eating a man during intercourse is sick and twisted, just the way I want my cannibal serial killer novels. What, I can’t enjoy a little bit of gore? In addition, there were entire pages dedicated to how some of the characters were sliced and diced. If you like details rather than fade-to-black sequences, Consumed is your book. Maybe.
How do you feel about incest? How do I put this without requiring a trigger warning? To put it bluntly, there is a lot of incest. None of it is fade-to-black either. It’s not as frequent or physically sickening as scenes in another extreme horror novel Dead to Writes (April Almighty Book One), the novel that I hold up as the sickest extreme horror novel I’ve read to date, but reading the descriptions of father-on-daughter violence feels voyeuristic and wrong. The problem with Consumed is that it should be the cannibalism that turns your stomach but in fact the incest is (I’m guessing) the reason this novel is considered extreme horror. I’ll ask you again, how do you feel about incest? Do you believe incest can carry a horror novel from beginning to end? Do you believe that incest is a ploy to make the villainous characters more sympathetic, even if there’s nothing else about them that is sympathetic? This may just be a personal concern, but I don’t think the way incest was written in Consumed was well-handled. Conventional wisdom says that you aren’t supposed to root for the villainous characters at any point of the novel. It was hard trying to negotiate the conventional wisdom with what the daughters suffered from their entire lives. Suzanne and Tammy, the daughters, are almost as into cannibalism as their parents. As readers, we shouldn’t like them. When they are raped by their father, we still don’t like them but we see them as victims and it’s just weird. Consumed would’ve been a stronger novella if the author left out the incest and just let us hate the family.
I have a lot of thoughts on Consumed, but I think author Matt Shaw’s author note placed right before the story says much more than I could say. Apparently Consumed isn’t even Matt Shaw’s normal style of writing. He had been receiving feedback from readers about them wanting some serious gore and rocked with it. His attempt with Consumed satisfied the extreme horror fans enough that the majority of ratings for the novella were overwhelmingly positive, but I’m not okay with it. I like Matt Shaw’s writing when it’s psychological (ex: Clown) or supernatural (ex: The Cabin and The Cabin: Asylum). I would normally recommend Matt Shaw. I will probably recommend some of his future works once I get ahold of them. I do not recommend Consumed.
How do you feel about cannibal serial killer clowns? If you threw up in your mouth a little reading that, you will not like author Tim Miller’s Welcome to Happytown. If you are sick and twisted like me and thought “Hey, I’ve gotta know more!” then trust me, you will be a happy horror literature buff. As the Amazon description and my review title says, Welcome to Happytown is the second book in the April Almighty series. While I was ambivalent on the first April Almighty book Dead to Writes, this one was delicious. It’s not perfect and you’re absolutely going to hear an explanation for that, but think of it as your favorite candy. You know it’s bad for you (the book flaws) but oh my god you can’t get enough (the book as a whole). The narrator for this book is omnicient but primarily tells the story in April Kennedy’s thoughts. The cannibal serial killer clowns (more on that later) get their fair share of voice time, but we’re not in their twisted minds too long for it to be uncomfortable. In addition, the thing that works in this book’s favor is that the majority of character deaths are well-deserved. Nobody is an innocent victim. Even April makes choices that are questionable at best, evil at worst.
Your spoiler-free summary is as follows: Bad things happen when April Kennedy is your friend. That is literally the only aspect of Welcome to Happytown that isn’t a spoiler. Right from the beginning when viewers are told that April, her best friend Stacy, her new friend Kimberly (known as “Kim” through the majority of the book), and her adversary/Kim’s boyfriend Todd are going on a road trip, you know it won’t end well. You also know that there will be lots of sex and death. How to put this in a not-too-weird way? April developed a very unique ability to make men ejaculate when she talks dirty or threatens them and then hack their minds in such a way that they could (and have!) kill themselves if she told them to. April knows her ability is too easily used for evil and basically shut herself down to human affection (even the real deal) knowing that she could slip up and kill good people. If this is mentioned within five pages, you know it’s foreshadowing. The rest of the book: April and her friends break down in a creepy little town that they can’t leave unless they go through the Funhouse. A bunch of pychotic cannibal serial clowns make the Funhouse their home and torture headqarters. Main characters die or get turned into clowns. The community decides to get rid of the Funhouse for reasos that aren’t entirely clear. April goes on a killing spree of the townspeople. In the end, April is punished for her actions but we don’t learn her fate. Lead in to Book Three? It is nearly impossible to write a non-spoilery review for this book. Be warned that my take on the book will definitely spill some surprises. The book is still worth reading, however.
There are two things I liked about this book. First, none of the so-called good characters are saints. Second, these clowns are definitely a Tim Miller creation. There was also a major problem in the “Did this book make sense?” department, which I’ll discuss as part of my clown discussion (pardon the redundant language).
In these heavily violent stories you probably want at least one heroic, clearly “good” character to cheer for. Tim Miler isn’t going to give you that in Welcome to Happytown. April Kennedy is your heroine but her killing spree is anything but heroic. Kimberly is a sweetheart/pushover and look where that got her! Hint: Clowns can reproduce if they have a woman’s body to use as a vessel/incubator in a short amount of time (like, under an hour). Stacy was insignificant, which surprised this reader because she had been April’s best friend and rock. Todd? Well, Todd’s turning just goes to show that the bully always wins, even if “winning” is similar to losing. At least he got disfigured in the process, I guess. These characters don’t fit the traditional mold. That’s actually a good thing.
If you read my review of Dead to Writes (April Almighty Book One) then you knew I was uncomfortable with certain scenes. I didn’t mind the torture scenes or the cannibalism scenes, but the rape scenes were too much. The characters were completely innocent with no bad qualities that I could see. For all readers knew, they hadn’t even written negative reviews of a book (the reason the cannibal serial killers went on their revenge spree) in the first place. Welcome to Happytown had a different vibe, even where there was a very long, very weird rape scene of April’s friend Kimberly. I felt bad for Kimberly because, well, ewwwww! The entire atmosphere of the scene was different, however. I didn’t get the sense of injustice and true violation like I got from Dead to Writes. A part of me wonders if the author toned the scene down to be less “real” and another part of me wonders if I’ve come to expect a certain style from the author. More realistically, it seems like these characters being so flawed makes readers a little less sympathetic to them. I worry that this could be dehumanizing in some aspects (analyzing sexual assault in real life, for example), but for getting through Welcome to Happytown and appreciating the book for its fictional qualities, I can’t thank Mr. Tim Miller enough.
Now, let’s talk about the cannibal serial killer clowns. I have this craving for novels about evil clowns in general so it’s pretty much a given that I’ll read any novel dealing with evil clowns. Cannibal serial kiler clowns are the best type of clowns, I’ve decided. What’s interesting about Tim Miller’s clowns is that they’re a new type of entity. These aren’t clowns like what we’re familiar with, people wearing tacky make-up and horrible outfits. These clowns are entities that have always been clowns. According to the head clown Uncle Monkey, these entities have been around since Ancient Egypt and nobody, not even the clowns themselves, know exactly what they are. Todd and Stacy, when they become clowns, have to make a full-body change and forget their old identities because they’re no longer human. It’s convoluted but I, who always look for flaws in novels, didn’t question it too much. Props to Tim Miller for creating a new monster!
The only problem I have with the novel is that certain major aspects aren’t explained well but you’re supposed to accept them as if they are. For example, Kimberly giving birth to a clown later named Tiny Bubbles was just weird. The act of reproduction and giving birth was exactly like it is with humans except performed in about an hour and the clown offspring grows sort of in the uterus but explodes through the stomach, leaving behind a trail of female reproductive organs and innards. As horror fans we expect weird scenes like this, but I’m sure we also like some explanation. I have a few questions off the top of my head. Is this a normal method of clown reproduction? Is it normal for the baby clown to eat its mother/vessel’s organs after exploding out of her body? How exactly does all this occur in less than an hour? How are these clowns fertile if they’re non-human entities? Inquiring minds need to know, Mr. Miller!
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.