Stephen Graham Jones
Titan Books, 7 February 2023
Available as: PB, 496pp, audio, e
Source: Advance copy, audio sub
I'm grateful to Titan Books for an advance e-copy of Don't Fear the Reaper to consider for review. I also listened to parts of the book on audio.There is a scene roughly halfway through Don't Fear the Reaper where two young women are sheltering in a deserted, burned out house, isolated in a winter storm. Jennifer has just returned to town after four years' absence caused by 'legal difficulties' - she's been on trial for murder. Letha, her friend, was badly injured in the events that caused Jennifer's problems - The Independence Day Massacre/ The Lake Witch Massacre (it's complicated) - and is still going through surgery to reconstruct her face.
That doesn't, however, make this book (or for that matter My Heart...) inaccessible. Far from it. It serves, I think, all the more to highlight that behind the references in this and other conversation, a connection exists between these two women who are from very different social strata (one the daughter of the town drunk, probably abused as a child - though this is never stated outright - recently incarcerated and pretty much homeless) and the other an heiress, married to a sheriff's deputy, with a baby daughter... though Black and an incomer to this remote tight knit community). That conversation, and its sense of geeky joy and a shared fandom, shows how close Letha and Jennifer are, underlining that they ca and will trust each other and fight for each other in what will soon be dire circumstances. It explores and highlights what they have in common, what they have lost, and especially the shared experience of that awful night four years ago which, of course, is directly one point in a discussions of slashers.
It is a brilliant scene, one of those apparently shallow, but really deep, conversations between old friends where stuff doesn't have to be said, the most obscure allusions unlocking experiences and trains of thought so that the speech almost appears like code. We see this sharing, which goes right back to the events of My Heart is a Chainsaw, and we see how deep, how vital, is this friendship. It is triumphantly, almost gleefully, done, the nuances and hints all there in filmic references. This is I think the heart of the book and it is beautiful.
Around that interlude, this story is thought very dark indeed. A notorious serial killer (why do wealways add 'notorious' in that phrase?) being transported in a convoy in the depths of winter (what can possibly go wrong) may have escaped, but nobody knows for sure because due to the weather comms are down. The town is therefore cut off, and of course victims, mainly high school students, are turning up horribly tortured. Added to that, the town sheriff and his most trusted deputies are absent and only Letha's husband, a probationer whom nobody rates, remains to hold the fort.
What we have, then, are the attempts of the townsfolk to defend themselves from Dark Mill South, in less than ideal circumstances, and efforts by of Jennifer, Letha and some of the others who understand how these episodes unfold, to work out what is going on. Plus there's a whole town mythology involving drowned girls that may or may not play a part.
We also get some of the thoughts and actions of the escaped convict.
The story is told through various voices, some of which aren't identified until near the end, and include, as did My Heart, a student writing papers for her history teacher (in the previous book it was Jennifer, then called Jade). Those papers are being done some months after the main events of the book, and add a little perspective and some information not clear at the time.
While the premise might seem simple, there is a lot going on in this book and Stephen Graham Jones plays some games with viewpoints - as well as allowing red herrings to swim in the waters. (Or perhaps not red herrings, but things that will only be explained in the upcoming third book of the trilogy). The centre though is not the twists ands turns of the slasher horror but the relationships that it casts light on in. Indeed, the author rather knowingly mocks the fascination with every last detail of what is, ultimately, a fictional genre. Encountering a character who is if anything even more obsessed with slashers than she is/ was, Jennifer/ Jade is aghast and asks herself whether this is what she was like four years before.
A great book, and a wonderful followup to My Heart but I repeat, you really do need to read that first. This is not a standalone.
The audio is very impressive in what must have been a difficult book to translate to spoken word, not least because of the need to make clear where parts are from different perspectives but without giving too much away about some of the protagonists. The solution - to use several different voices - gives this version a little more of the sense of an audio drama rather than the reading of a book, but creates an involving and vital result which does make a number of points clearer, but avoids spoiling anything.
For more information about Don't Fear the Reaper see the Titan Books website here.