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186 pages, Paperback
First published May 1, 2016
The nitty-gritty: Despite the author's fluid writing style and evocative imagery, this story lacked a solid plot and sympathetic characters, and with its over-the-top violence, it just wasn't for me.
Every once in a while I try a new small publisher, and I’ve found some great ones by taking chances and stepping out of my comfort zone. For that reason, I decided to read Psychopomp and Circumstance from small publisher A Murder of Storytellers. I was impressed with the gorgeous cover and was in the mood to read some horror. And while I enjoyed some things about the book, overall this just didn't work for me. Messmer gets points for her writing skills and the creepy, atmospheric mood of her twisted, literary version of the slasher film, but the lack of a strong plot and the bizarre actions of the characters had me scratching my head in confusion for most of the story. In fact, it’s going to be very difficult to give you a story synopsis, but I’ll give it a shot.
The chapters alternate among a large cast of characters, high school grads who have grown up together in a small town and have yet to figure out what they’re going to do with their lives. There’s Nell, who has recently been diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor; Kelly, whose family owns a mortuary; Ash, a blogger who might have a thing for Nell; Faye, Nell’s best friend who may or may not be dead; Carly, a weird girl whose father recently committed suicide; Zack, the popular party boy; Ethan, who gets off on watching horror/slasher films; and Chris, who is living in a junk-filled house and mourning the death of his father. Linking all these characters together is a creepy urban legend called the Sewercide Man, the ghost of a serial killer whose body was found by Kelly and Carly years ago. Nell keeps seeing the grinning man with sharp teeth who holds a beat-up umbrella, and she thinks her tumor may be causing her to hallucinate, but she’s not the only one who sees him.
After a party at Zack’s house, weird things start happening to each one of these characters, as the Sewercide Man seems to be intruding on everyone’s reality.
I want to start with the positives, because I do think Messmer is a very talented writer. Her imagery is wonderful, and I loved her vivid descriptions:
The distance between me and them is uncomfortably small. The lamps blink out, one by one, as the shadow passes over them. It devours the light. The sound of rain on the roof overtakes the music. It sounds like war drums. I turn and run, hearing them behind me, moving like an army.
And because this is horror, I was happy to find that the author has a talent for tone and infusing the story with a feeling of unease and dread. There’s no doubt that bad things are going to happen in this story, and the sense of impending doom leading up to the bad stuff is due to Messmer’s skillful writing.
But not even the best writing can make up for a story with little or no plot. Each chapter focuses on the actions and misadventures of two or three of the characters, and then the next chapter jumps to a different group. What this jumping around did was to isolate the characters from one another, resulting in an extremely fractured story. I found myself forgetting who was who and losing the thread of the very tenuous plot. If it weren’t for the Sewercide Man, who remains the big mystery for most of the story, I probably wouldn’t have finished this book.
And here’s where I have to warn squeamish readers about Psychopomp and Circumstance: if you are indeed squeamish when it comes to graphic violence, I would steer clear of this book. Just like slasher films, the scenes where the characters meet their horrific deaths are described in up-close detail, as if the camera were zooming in on the knife and slowing down for the benefit of violence junkies. Now, don’t get me wrong. I’ve read plenty of books with graphic violence and loved them, but those were tempered with emotional moments that gave the violence meaning, and filled with characters that I actually cared about. If I don’t have that emotional connection to a character, then the violence just seems tacked on and needless.
And that’s another problem I had with this story: I just didn’t care about anyone. None of the characters had any redeeming qualities, and when their inevitable end came—and it keeps on coming!—my reaction was “Seriously, he’s dead too??” instead of “Damn, I really liked that guy!” Sure, there are some characters that you feel sorry for—at first. Like Nell, who is dying. But then she tries to commit suicide (a running theme in this story in case you haven’t guessed) and I lost some respect for her. And Chris, who is literally sinking into despair in a house filled with junk, trying to come to terms with his dead father. And everyone calls him “Sissy Chrissy” so you immediately feel for him. And then there’s “Corpsy” Carly, who lost her virginity to Zack and wound up with a baby—no wait, I didn’t feel bad for her at all. Each character has a sadder story than the last, and it just got more and more depressing the longer I read.
Do I need a happy ending every time I read a book? No, but if there isn’t some kind of light at the end of the tunnel, I just can’t find a reason to keep reading.
I also want to mention that the e-book I read was full of typos, which surprised me because I believe it was a finished copy. (At least it didn’t say anything about being an uncorrected proof.) Small publishers have it hard anyway, trying to get a foothold in the big, bad world of publishing, so I would think they’d want to present a polished product to help themselves along.
So as much as I love the genre, this book just wasn’t my type of horror, unfortunately. Reviewers on Goodreads seem to love it, though, so clearly there's an audience for Psychopomp and Circumstance. If you love slasher films and stories with endless buckets of blood and rotting corpses, then this could be just the story for you.
Big thanks to the author for supplying a review copy.This review originally appeared on Books, Bones & Buffy