Typically I write my reviews on movies, not novels, for two reasons. One is that it is less of a commitment of time and effort to rewatch a movie with notepad in hand to make my overthinking extra overthinky. The other is that I’ve heard from several authors that it’s a good idea to leave the bad reviews to the professional reviewers. I often get a lot out of analyzing stories that I think did something poorly, and when I do that I always go for Hollywood. However, for my first idea-rich horror review, I am breaking that trend. There’s no need to reread I Am Not a Serial Killer, because all the relevant details are stuck quite firmly in my mind, and there will certainly be no need to say anything negative.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is the first book in a series by Dan Wells, about a teenager, John Cleaver, who doesn’t want to be a serial killer. Normally that isn’t something teenagers have to deal with, but in his case there are a number of warning signs, from a diagnosis of pre-sociopathy to frequent bloody fantasies to the fact that his name is John Wayne Cleaver. His life is lived by a rigid code designed to protect him from his temptation to kill. When his small town is stalked by monsters, he seems to have been presented by a win-win situation; the opportunity to stalk and kill without being in the wrong. Naturally, this situation gets sticky very, very quickly.
While there is plenty of gore, the book is primarily psychological horror. We like John and we don’t want to see him give in to his dark side. I’m not sure John is a perfectly accurate depiction of a sociopath, though that is less Dan Wells’ fault and more a consequence of the mystery of what sociopathy truly is. John has all the classic marks, except that he has a desire to be better. It’s that tension that makes him both strangely fascinating and extremely relatable. That conflict is fundamental to every moral question. What do we do when what we think is right and what we want to do are at odds?
There are two approaches that John is caught between. One is of setting a clear, firm boundary between himself and who he fears becoming. It’s not enough for him to not kill. He has to not follow people around. He has to say something nice to someone if he has a fantasy about brutally dismembering them. He can’t eat meat. The other is of choosing a release that is supposed to be safe; it’s okay to kill someone if you think they might be dangerous to others, right?
I’m interested in moral questions, and I’ve been all over the political and religious maps. John’s list of rules reminds me of the preferred methods of Christian fundamentalism, and many other conservative worlds, while seeking an acceptable outlet tends to be preferred by liberal and secular worlds. While I’ve settled with a strong preference for the approach of outlets, to be honest there are downsides to both.
Take sex for example. Now, I tend to think sex is needlessly stigmatized, but in the Western world I think it is the area where the average person is most likely to experience a conflict between what they want to do and what they think they should do. The trouble with rigid boundaries is that they can heighten the tension, and thus the intensity of the temptation. They can easily result in a sliding scale. Consider standards of modesty; in a world where chests and thighs must be covered, shoulders and knees become erotic. When the legs and arms are covered, the wrists and ankles become scandalous. Meanwhile, the behavior of the people who have placed these boundaries does not necessarily improve. In the United States, we are used to hearing about the affairs, call girls and rent boys of politicians, typically the most religiously conservative ones. I personally am in favor of peeling back all the restrictions to the bare minimum; physical safety and consent are important, but otherwise why worry. Still, for people who feel the urge to cheat, or who hate condoms, or who are attracted to someone who doesn’t consent, simply saying “here’s a minimally restrictive alternative”doesn’t necessarily mean they will do the right thing. I’ve known people in highly relaxed, poly and kink friendly circles who only seek to play lawyer and see how much they can get away with. Loopholes are sought, definitions pushed and rules bent and sometimes outright broken, and people still get hurt.
The problem, of course, is that no amount of rules can make you do the right thing if you fundamentally don’t love your partners enough to take care of them. Which brings the matter back to John. He experiences both types of problems. He bounces back and forth between rules that only make breaking more appealing, and releases that make him seek even more loopholes. Whichever tactic he takes is destined to fail, unless he can learn true empathy; to care about people for their own sake. That is the question at the heart of the series. Can he learn to connect with others?
This is by far not only one of my favorite horror series, but one of my favorite series of any genre. It is exciting, creepy and fun, but also has one of the most compelling character arcs of anything I have read. If you’re looking for some Halloween reading, and you haven’t read this series yet, go check out I Am Not a Serial Killer.