Friday, October 29, 2010

Co-review: I Am Not a Serial Killer

It's fitting that this review comes so soon after Jenny recently reviewed Brandon Sanderson's newest book, since Dan Wells credits Sanderson with pushing him to write I Am Not a Serial Killer in the first place. Having Sanderson's support wasn't enough to make it very easy to get a hold of, though. Initially it was only published in the UK, then was released in the US last spring. But I still had to wait for an InterLibrary Loan (from out-of-state, no less!) to finally get my hands on it.

I Am Not a Serial Killer is a first-person narrative by an intriguing, yet disturbing, 15-year-old boy. John Wayne Cleaver is a morbid teenager who has been raised in a mortuary and has a keen fascination with death. He is obsessed with serial killers and makes a hobby out of studying them. The more he learns, the more convinced he is that he is destined to become a serial killer himself. But he doesn't want that, so he desperately follows a set of self-imposed rules to try to counteract his sociopathic tendencies.

Things change for John when a series of gruesome murders begin haunting the small town. John's unique perspective allows him to discover the murderer long before the police even get close, and he becomes convinced that he is the only one who can stop the killer. But to do so, he feels he must surrender to the monster within, and risk losing himself (or fulfilling his destiny, he's not sure which) forever.

As usual, we like to discuss these co-reviews openly, so consider yourself forewarned!

Caren: After a run of somewhat blah books lately, I Am Not a Serial Killer really made me sit up and take notice. I don't like guts and gore, so I felt pretty squeamish at the beginning when he was describing the process of embalming and the details of the first violent murder. Fortunately, he didn't go into a lot of graphic detail with every murder, or else I might not have been able to get much farther than the first few chapters! But I have to admit that I have a new appreciation for morticians now. I'm so grateful that there are people who make death so sanitary for the rest of us!

Jenny:  I made the mistake of sitting down to eat my lunch while I read this book the first time.  I made a note to myself never to do that again.  It did make me grateful that there are people, non-psychotic people, out there in the world who are willing and able to do the work of preparing the dead for burial.  'Cause it's gross.

I thought it was fascinating that our protagonist and potential hero is a mentally-disturbed teenage boy with his own monster waiting to strike and kill.  Very cool and original.  Freaky too, but it made the angle of the story different than what I was expecting.  Two things that took me by surprise was that we found out who the killer was fairly early in the story and that the killer wasn't human.  I thought for sure this would be a murder mystery that put John into suspicion as the killer and then he used his knowledge of serial killers to find the real killer.  Nope, nothing like that.  When I realized that the story was more about John using his inner demon to destroy the actual demon, it was all symbolic and stuff.

Caren: I was surprised by the supernatural element too.  John talks about himself and his disturbing tendencies in such a gritty matter-of-fact way that I expected the villain to be someone straight out of the news, not out of a comic book.  And it sure surprised me when the killer turned out to be his harmless neighbor!  (It's been a while since I've been genuinely surprised in a novel, so that was kind of fun.)  In some ways it was probably better to have the killer be this weird demon masquerading as a nice old man.  It was easier to read it late at night with the distance of "this could never happen in real life."

The demon was scary, but the creepiest and most disturbing thing to me was watching John struggle with his own unnatural inhumanity.  It makes me wonder how accurate Wells' portrayal is from a psychological standpoint.  I liked that John's therapist didn't think he was beyond hope, and I was glad that he shows himself capable of genuine feeling at the end when he and his mother defeat the demon.  That gives me hope that he's not a true sociopath destined to become a serial killer like he fears.  Even the fact that he doesn't want to become one should count for something, right?

Jenny:  I have a really hard time with books or movies that are about horrific things that can actually happen in real life.  Sci-fi doesn't scare me, just gives me the fun heebie jeebies.  If the killer had been a real person, it would have been way harder to read and I definitely would have avoided reading it at night.  For that I'm glad it was just a super creepy killer monster with a soft side for his wife.

What was really scary to me was when John let his inner monster out.  When he bashed Mrs. Crowley's head with the alarm clock and barely stopped himself from killing her, I was in agony.  I begged Wells not to let John become the monster that he was threatening to become.  Like you said, I also like that his therapist was a good person who truly thought John was a good person with a strong moral code.  He needed Neblin at that critical point and Neblin didn't fail him.  It cost him his life, but it kept John under control.

At that point in the book, my heart was pounding in my chest and I could barely breathe.  As soon as John saw on his GPS that the demon was heading back to the house, I thought I was going to jump out of my skin.  It's been a while since a book had me in such suspense.

Caren: Oh man, me too! It's a good thing it didn't get any more suspenseful because I could barely stand it as it was.  Which made it perfect for Halloween!  And yet, for as creepy and violent as it was, it was surprisingly clean.  I can't remember any bad language or anything sexual, which I would have expected for an edgy novel about a would-be serial killer.

I thought Wells did a really good job with the suspense and developing John's character.  In the acknowledgments, he insists that it's not autobiographical, but I wasn't convinced.  That's how believable John's character was!  (That, and I can't help but wonder about how well-balanced an author can be who writes about such psychosis so convincingly.)  But I admired Wells' restraint.  He showed us just enough of John's dysfunctional relationships with family and friends and his obsession with serial killers to give us a clear picture of his psyche without overdoing it.  It would have been really easy to go over-the-top with a character like John, but Wells didn't, and his reserve made for a stronger novel.

I am both intrigued and nervous that Wells intends this to be the first of a trilogy (I think the second was just recently published).  Intrigued because I am a little curious about what happens to John now.  He's made a breakthrough with his mother.  He has let loose his own monster with it's major issues.  And there were enough references to his father that make me wonder if there is more to come with that story.  But I am nervous that for the story to continue, it will only be because John has greater demons -- both within and without -- that he has to face.  I'm not sure I can handle that!  And I definitely don't like what more novels might mean for the sweet and innocent Brooke that he's stalking at the end.  It makes me shudder just thinking about it!

At least he ends this first novel well enough that I don't feel like I have to read the next one to finish the story.  I always appreciate that in an author!

Jenny:  Yeah, I just read online that it was going to be a trilogy.  It didn't have the feel of a trilogy at the end of the book, so I was surprised.  I'm kinda excited to see where Wells takes John and his tortured self.  There was some seriously scary and upsetting parts in this book, but nothing that wouldn't stop me from reading the next two books.  I have enough faith in Wells' plans for John that I think it could turn out okay in the end.

I just remembered that we read Odd Thomas a few years ago for our October co-review and how scary that was.  Comparing Odd and John to each other, they are polar opposites.  Odd is peace-loving and non-violent except when he's forced to while having a strange ability thrust upon him, while John is tormented by desires to do great violence and constantly keeps it in check.  Yet, I think I like John just as much as I liked Odd.  Not because John is inherently likable, but because he works so hard to be good.  You've read more Odd Thomas than me, what do you think?

Caren: You know, it's funny that you mention Odd Thomas, because I thought of it too.  Partly because that was probably the last time I read something this suspenseful, and partly because of the supernatural element.  You're right that whereas Odd is so good and innocent, John is just plain scary.  But at the same time I can't help feeling compassion for him and wanting everything to work out.  I liked him, even though he freaked me out.

One thing I liked about the story is that as disturbing as it was, there was no such thing as violence without consequences.  So often in the action/thriller genres the good guys commit necessary acts of violence without it affecting their characters.  But the violence John committed changed him, just as it would in real life.  I liked that Wells forced us to face that when a good guy does bad things he can't walk away unscathed.

Okay, I looked up the next one and it looks to be even darker and more intense than the first.  It's called Mr. Monster and picks up right where I Am Not a Serial Killer ends.  The reviews look compelling; people seem to like it even more than the first.  Tell you what, you read it and then let me know what you think.  Maybe I can muster up enough courage if I know it's worth it.

Jenny:  Deal.  I will totally take care of that for you.  I'm excited to see where Wells will take the story.


  1. It's nice to be able to read about fascinating books like this one without needing to read it. Because serial killers freak me out, and I don't know if I can read this book. I really didn't like reading "The Lovely Bones" (for more reasons than the creepy horror factor), so I can't say I'm dying to read this one. But it's good to know about it, because I've passed it at Costco a few times and wondered about it. I'm always drawn in by the cover art.

  2. Rach, I've never read "The Lovely Bones" for that exact same reason. So I can't compare the two first-hand, but from what I've heard about "The Lovely Bones", I don't think "Serial Killer" is as graphic or disturbing. The subject matter is less horrible, and because it's geared toward a teen audience the treatment isn't as graphic as it could be. (Though I still think it'd be pretty intense for the average teen.)

  3. I was pretty interested in the idea about a boy who has serial killer instincts but doesn't act out on them. I have to admit I have a morbid curiosity about serial killers (not because I'm worried I'll become one but because...well, I don't know, but not that reason). The title alone had my interest piqued.

    However, I was a disappointed to learn that the real killer was a supernatural being. To me it cheapened the whole experience. I wanted John to be the serial killer sleuth and hunt down and find the real killer.

    That said, however, the scene where John attacks the old lady was very disturbing. It's one thing to read about killers and what they do. It's quite frightening to watch the murder happen through the eyes of the killer. And in such a brutal manner. Absolutely gut wrenching.

    One more comment. I blew through this book in two sittings and around midnight on the second night I had reached the climax of the story. Caren was dozing off and I wide awake, quite engrossed in the story. Quite suddenly, Caren lets out this ear piercing yell.

    I tell you what, if that didn't turn my blood to straight adrenaline right then and there I don't know what would.

    Turns out she wasn't being murdered—fortunately—because that would have really ruined my evening. Instead, she's simply reached up to grab her water and reinjured a previous shoulder dislocation.

    It sure made the whole thing just a little more real....

  4. Rach, I wish somebody had told me what The Lovely Bones was about before I read it because it completely terrified me. I've never seen the movie because I have no desire to experience it again. This book is nothing like The Lovely Bones. Not even close.

    I've been giggling over how Caren scared the jeepers outta Andrew. Hilarious! If it had been intentional that would have even better.

  5. What timing, Caren and Andrew. Hahaha.
    I read the Lovely Bones LONG ago. like 10 years ago, I think. I found it in an airport bookstore. Why is it just now coming out as something new? Is it the movie that just happened? I hated that book.