I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells
Review by Ryan Lawler
I Am Not A Serial Killer is the story of John Cleaver, a 15-year-old sociopath who works in a mortuary, dreams about death, and thinks he might be turning into a serial killer. He sets strict rules to keep himself “good” and “normal,” but when a real monster shows up in his town he has to let his dark side out in order to stop it–but without his rules to keep him in check, he might be more dangerous than the monster he’s trying to kill.
John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. Obsessed with serial killers, he never wants to be one. Yet terrible impulses constantly tempt him.
Having grown up helping his mom at the family mortuary, dead bodies are no big deal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t ask for the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the clarity to recognize that something is frighteningly different about the freshest body on the slab.
For the first time, John must confront a danger outside his own mind, a threat he cannot control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could.
Sourced from the author's website (http://www.fearfulsymmetry.net/?page_id=9)
I'd heard a lot about this book before I finally got the chance to read it. Dan Wells is close friends with Brandon Sanderson, one of my favourite authors, so many of my web searches often turned up interviews with Brandon Sanderson telling the world just how good an author Dan Wells is. This is not just lip service to help raise the profile of a friend, Wells is an incredibly talented author and his 2010 debut novel I Am Not A Serial Killer is one of the best, and creepiest, debut novel's I have ever read.
I Am Not A Serial Killer tells the story of John Wayne Cleaver, a 15 year old boy who lives and works with his mother at a mortuary and has been diagnosed with sociopathy. John has known that he isn't "normal" for a long time. He thinks about things much differently to others - everything and everyone is an object for him to figure out. The objects that fascinate him most are serial killers because deep down John knows that he is destined to become a serial killer and only by learning as much about them as possible can he avoid his fate.
The plot is not an overly complex one, a demonic serial killer starts picking off townspeople one by one and John, by tapping into his inner serial killer, is able to figure out who the serial killer is and what he needs to do to stop it. There are a few twists, turns, and shocks in there, but all in all the plot is just a framework for the real story of John, how he reacts to each situation, and how far he is willing to go eliminate this serial killer. The minimal complexity and Wells' poetic writing style allows the story to flow and allows the reader to focus on John and his inner workings. There are times where I think Wells goes a bit too far in depth and gets a bit too preoccupied with things like the technical details of how embalming works, but I guess it's in the nature of a serial killer (and John in particular) to become fixated on objects and processes. It is by no means out of character and I found a lot of it fascinating, but at times it slowed the story down when I really just wanted to get to the next scene.
John is a deeply flawed yet extremely capable young boy whose analytical mind is perfectly suited to finding the demonic serial killer that has started terrorising his neighbourhood. He has personified his serial killer tendencies as the monster inside of him, and his internal conflicts with that monster provide some of the most breathtaking, fascinating, and disturbing scenes I have ever read. And when I say disturbing I mean proper disturbing. The way he deconstructs a person's routine by obsessively stalking them, the way he fantasizes about hanging his bullies up in his basement on a meat hook while slowly tearing strips off them, the way he breaks out into massive smiles whilst analysing the dead bodies he is helping to embalm, I just felt... icky while reading it, and worried by how fascinating I found it. Despite all of this, John's constant fight to maintain control of his monster in the name of protecting his family and community allows us to empathise with him. There are worse things in books than killing characters, and the fear that John may lose control and become the monster himself is far more powerful than the fear of him being caught by the demon.
I Am Not A Serial Killer is a book that just works on so many levels. I was unprepared by how deeply engrossed I would become with the book, with only hard taps on my shoulder able to bring me out of this immersion. John is one of the most complex characters I have had the opportunity to explore and I can't wait to read the last two books in the series and get back into his head again.
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