Skin by Peter Fugazzotto

6/10 Billed as "'The Thing' with swords," Skin is a fun, quick read that's more "whodunit" mystery than horror.

Peter Fugazzoto's Skin is a short, neat little horror story that borrows heavily from John Carpenter's "The Thing" in which a creature-in-human-disguise haunts an isolated location in the snowy wilds. Instead of Antarctica, the story takes place in a keep, buried in the mountains near a seldom-used border. A few soldiers, a cook, a witch (?!), a hunter, and a political hostage are holed up for what appears to be a brutal winter. Hemming, our POV war vet who just wants to be alone with his thoughts, asked to be sent here to try and escape his sordid and violent past. Well, Hemming, I have news for ya...

The book starts when a patrol sees a naked, bloody figure stumbling towards the keep from the northern border. This figure turns out to be a woman, and she is being hunted by a pack of dogs. The soldiers recognize her as a political prisoner once held by their enemies across the border, about half a day's hike away. Somehow she's still alive when she's brought into the keep, but seems to have been driven mad by her injuries. Hemming and a companion are assigned to trek over to the enemy's station to see what happened, and things start to go awry.

If you’ve seen the film, the story hits a lot of familiar beats. The monster flays its victims, then steals and wears their skin to pass itself off as human. Nobody can be trusted, accusations fly, and men are driven to extreme actions out of fear and hate. Dogs seem to know how to track the monster, so utilizing them correctly plays a key role. The horror here is atmospheric, and although we see the aftermath of some of the victims, we really don't engage in much "on-screen" violence; most of the action occurs off the page. In one instance, the characters all go to sleep, fully aware there's a monster on the premises, and surprise!, not everyone survives the night. 

One issue that stood out was the author's tendency to be redundant in his descriptions. It felt like 20% of the text is used to describe how cold it was. The prose consisted of generally sharp, clipped phrases, which felt a bit mundane after a while. And Hemming's constant grimacing about his past, about how he just wants to get away, but instead found "madness" was repeated quite a few times beyond what was necessary.

Although this book is billed by the author as "'The Thing' with swords," it felt less like a horror, and more of a whodunit murder mystery. I wish it leaned a bit heavier into the horror aspect of things. The ending is somewhat satisfactory - being a horror story, you'll likely know how this one is going to end. But an important scene was left out before the final chapter, so it is up to the reader to decide what actually happened. I'm not so sure that was the best decision, as there could have been several outcomes to get to where the story needed to be, and we strangely don't get any answers -- just the consequences of its fallout. This may all sound vague, as I don't want to spoil anything, but it'll become clearer once you get there.

All things considered, this could be a fun, quick read for those who are fans of "The Thing," or a mystery/horror hybrid with some axes and swordplay mixed in.

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