I raved about Dan Wells’s first novel, I Am Not a Serial Killer, when it was released. (Here, if you’re curious.) It had style, deliciously good voice, the proper balance of horror and sympathy for his lead John Wayne Cleaver, and a cool little supernatural murder mystery plot that kept readers on the edge of their seats through a damned fantastic game of cat-and-mouse between killers.
The sequel, Mr. Monster, is one of the books I’ve most looked forward to this year. I wanted to see if he could pull off the same magic again or even improve it. I had a few nitpicks with the first novel that I was hoping would be resolved in the second. So, did he manage to up his game with the second book?
The story takes up shortly after the end of I Am Not a Serial Killer, when the town has finally started to settle down from its last encounter with a serial murderer—who was actually a literal sort of monster—and throws the reader immediately into the downward spiral John’s experiencing in his self-control after the satisfaction of killing for the first time. John is having enough problems delicately balancing his mother, who knows the truth about him but doesn’t get it at all, and trying to put Mr. Monster (as he refers to his “bad” inner voice) back under wraps.
Then a new string of bodies begins to appear, these very different from the last. They’re torture victims and they seem to be placed with the intent of drawing John out—which means that whoever or whatever has come to town knows what he did to the last rival on his turf.
As I Am Not a Serial Killer was not originally intended to be a series, I admit I had a teeny, tiny bit of worry that the sequel would feel unnatural. After all, what are the odds of more demons showing up to provide the plot in the same small town? Wells handles that potential snag so well that if his own blog hadn’t told me otherwise, I would never have guessed he hadn’t intended a sequel from the beginning. The introduction by the end of the book of a network of monsters, old and terrible and hungry, is chilling. They keep in touch. When one of them goes missing, another in a strategic career/disguise comes a-hunting for his killer. The second book flows seamlessly from the first.
While the first book was twisty and dark, the second makes the leap to frightening and sinister. It’s part of the stellar character development and voice that Wells employs with seemingly effortless skill—John has let the monster out of the box, and he can’t put it back. Half of the tension and terror of Mr. Monster comes not from the other killer but from within John. Wells isn’t afraid to go down the path he’s set up for his lead. John’s thoughts and narrative are much less pleasant this time around for the reader, but because of that discomfort, his moments of sympathetic action and his epic inner struggle are all the more enticing.
The plot, too, delves into disturbing territory. The entire last third of the book is graphic and frankly horrifying—moreso because John’s view of the other killer’s captives is occasionally more interested than repulsed. His climactic moment of victory comes at the heels of giving in, however briefly, to how he really feels about his potential “romantic” interest. Obviously, it isn’t pretty. The realism in the intense struggle to channel his desires into killing only other monsters is breathtaking: Wells doesn’t just tell us John has rules and doesn’t want to give in to his desires. He makes us feel and witness the fight, and a fight it is, one that John honestly seems to be losing.
What makes this even more believable and unsettling is the pattern of John’s family and “friends” around him—Wells spares no grief in developing John’s mother, his sister, and their psychological issues. Everyone in these books is damaged or at the breaking point. It’s so very real that it’s often hard to breathe when reading the painful family and school scenes. Wells never allows the reader to gloss over the fact that the antihero is a teenager with serious, nearly unmanageable violent desires. He is a monster, through and through, and only the skin of his teeth has kept him from giving in so far. All of his rules for keeping Mr. Monster at bay have disintegrated and he’s indulged in far too much play to keep himself steady any longer.
The supernatural aspect in this story is also even better, in my opinion. The demon of the first book is a true movie-monster, not even human in appearance when it came down to it. This time around, the antagonist is a hair-raising empathic demon who seems to want John for himself almost more than he wants to get any sort of revenge. The tight, binding tension between them as they trade volleys and try to conquer one another is fantastic. This time the monster is more human, and the human is more monstrous. It’s a slow slide for John and I’m intrigued to see where it ends up—I can only suspect the final destination won’t be somewhere nice. John does not seem to be able to keep his life on track any longer the way he originally wanted to. And, after all, he’s only sixteen. Most serial killers don’t get their real start until their twenties.
A point I wouldn’t want to miss mentioning is that John does bond with the other victims—and he does choose to let his sister’s abusive boyfriend live, when he easily could have killed him and had no repercussions. He resists the worst temptations when they’re offered to him and manages to wrangle his desires well enough that he can direct them toward the monster he’s hunting. There is still a glimmer of hope for John. Really, though, I can’t decide if I’d rather read a book where he manages to hold on to his control and keeps hunting only demons, or a book where he finally slips and lets it all out.
Overall, Mr. Monster is a one-sitting read so gripping and unsettling that you might want to start over again at page one when you’re finished. Wells’s voice is so crisp and engaging that it feels like John is whispering in your ear—which is a bit shiver-inducing at times. I give it a solid A+ for working out the minor narrative kinks from the first book and, instead of keeping it lighter fair, delving down into the most sinister and dark places of the human psyche. Wells goes there. He’s not afraid to take his readers down the logical path that he’s set up, even though it’s not a conventional sort of story.
Man, I love horrible-very-bad-scary narrators. Fantastic stuff. I’m eagerly awaiting the next book, I Don’t Want to Kill You, in 2011. I don’t know how it could possibly be any better or more engaging than this one, but I’m willing to bet Dan Wells manages it. (And have I mentioned how gorgeously understated the covers are? Some of my favorites from the past several years.)