“The demon offspring of Stephen King’s The Shining and Hitchcock’s Psycho.” ~Michael Grant
To further get in the Halloween spirit, I decided to read Daniel Kraus‘ young adult novel, Scowler. I have rarely been so uncomfortable or anxious while reading, and that includes adult fiction. It was a perfect choice.
The story is set on a failing farm in the 1980s, hours before a meteor shower is scheduled to begin. The atmosphere is ominous, palpably so. We are immediately made aware that unspoken horrors have happened here, actions that have invaded the soil and minds of the Burke family, who lives there. It opens with 19-year-old Ry and his little sister scouring a field for her newly lost tooth. During this innocent activity, Ry’s thoughts turn toward his father, a man inexorably entwined with the cruelties that landed him in prison 9 years prior and with the memory of something cryptically referred to as “The Unnamed Three.” Kraus deftly sets the stage for this man, larger than life in his son’s eyes, rendering him both godlike and evil–someone legendary, someone to be feared:
“Marvin Burke was a man whose shadow still chilled the entire county. Merchants and neighbors alike had brandished a distrust of the man of the wolverine manner, the obliterating handshake, the features that never stopped moving–the pulsing veins, twitching mustache, a rubber grin that delivered the nonstop soliloquies….They suspected the man was a horror and they were right.
Ry had known that what his father did in the privacy of their home was unspeakable, but how could he or anyone else dare to stop him when Marvin Burke was the one who kept the sun rising and falling, kept winters from falling too harshly…?” (5)
The power of this book is in its subtlety, the quiet way in which details are laid down so that you feel their weight even before you understand their true implications. Daniel Kraus uses both language and narrative structure to excellent effect, making Scowler a psychological and visceral tale of horror. Time is doled out by the hour, elevating the sense of tension pervading the novel, but also confining the story’s action to approximately two days. Through a series of flashbacks, missing information falls into place, revealing a past events that made me cringe and cry aloud. Though Marvin is the largest figure in the novel, Ry is its central character. We delve into his mind and see him struggle, not only with the abuse of his father, but with the emergence of Marvin’s tendencies within himself; brutality is pitted against familial loyalty and the raw need to survive.
As you observe the Burkes on their farm and hear the calls of the Unnamed Three, the narrative thread imperceptibly tightens around your heart, quickening your pulse and inciting panic because you know something terrible is lurking in every corner and everything is about to be made worse, but you just don’t know when.
For fans of realistic horror, I highly recommend picking up a copy of Scowler.