Destiny, Demons, and Freewill in Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver Books

4.19.11 | | 9 comments

Title: I Am Not a Serial Killer
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: YA suspense/horror
Year Published: 2010 [My copy of the book has a copyright date of 2010, with a listing of “First Edition: April 2010.” Yet I know this book was actually published originally in 2009, and it won a 2009 Whitney Award for best first novel by an LDS author. I think what happened is that it was released in the UK in 2009, but was not released in the U.S. until 2010.]
Number of Pages: 271
Binding: Trade Paperback (also available in hardback and as an ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2782-6
Price: $9.99

Title: Mr. Monster
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: YA suspense/horror
Year Published: 2010
Number of Pages: 287
Binding: Trade Paperback (also available in hardback and as an ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2790-1
Price: $11.99

Title: I Don’t Want to Kill You
Author: Dan Wells
Publisher: Tor
Genre: YA suspense/horror
Year Published: 2011
Number of Pages: 320
Binding: Trade Paperback (also available in hardback and as an ebook)
ISBN: 978-0-7653-2844-1
Price: $11.99

Reviewed by Jonathan Langford.

Includes spoilers for Book 3 in a very general sense, but no specifics.

John Wayne Cleaver, the main character of I Am Not a Serial Killer, is kind of a weird kid. 15 years old. Helps out in his family mortuary. Obsessed with serial killers.

And then a real-life serial killer comes to his small town. Only it turns out to be a demon. And it becomes Cleaver’s job to kill it. And then the same thing happens again (Mr. Monster). And again (I Don’t Want to Kill You, released just last month).

It sounds like a clever premise for an ongoing series, one that combines a half-cockeyed look at teen life with a ration of suspense, violence, and gruesomeness. And that’s the way it starts out. But it’s also a lot more, as I Don’t Want to Kill You brilliantly (and I don’t use that word lightly) demonstrates. All credit due to the genre of teen horror, but this series transcends the genre. Really. I say this as someone who doesn’t usually like horror as a genre, because I find real life terrifying enough, so take my comment as you will…

*****

Perhaps the best part of the books is Cleaver himself, a sympathetic teenage boy whom it’s surprisingly easy to like. In a lot of ways, he’s a fairly normal teenager: socially awkward, more than a bit geeky when it comes to his areas of interest (serial killers), at least a touch neurotic, beset by bullies in school, attracted to girls and unsure how to deal with that, saddled with a dysfunctional family past and a mother who loves him but whose attempts to help often drive him up the wall. To a great degree, what he wants are normal things, and what he wants to be is a normal person.

Alas, the latter seems unlikely to be achieved. I’m no psychologist, but I have to say that Cleaver’s recitation of symptoms displayed by serial killers and how well he matches them is all too convincing. Normal boys who are attracted to a pretty girl don’t automatically start thinking, with loving possessiveness, about unspecified acts of torture. Cleaver’s behavior is genuinely over the top, though much of it represents potential that hasn’t yet been acted on, as in the following quote from Mr. Monster:

Brooke Watson was the most beautiful girl in school, and she was my age, and she lived two houses down from me, and I could pick out her scent in a massive crowd. She had long blond hair, and braces, and a smile so bright it made me wonder why other girls bothered smiling at all. I knew her class schedule, her birthday, her Gmail password, and her social security number — none of which I had any business knowing. (p. 25)

But the critical defining element of Cleaver’s character isn’t his sociopathic personality type (diagnosed as antisocial personality disorder by the counselor in his first book, a sympathetic figure who, alas, doesn’t survive to book two), but rather his strong desire not to be a serial killer and the vast self-discipline he applies to that effort. Cleaver is both a strong and a moral character — all the more so since for him, acting morally is so clearly an act of will, as opposed to natural inclination.

Wells does a good job at depicting teenage dialect, as in the second book when Cleaver’s  best friend takes to starting every conversation with the words “Shut up,” for no terribly clear reason except that he’s a teenage boy. The fact that Cleaver himself doesn’t sound much like a typical teenager is part of Wells’s characterization of him as both brighter and less socially clued in than other kids his age. It also is part of what makes him appealing as a character. Cleaver is in some ways not that far removed from the tradition of bright adolescent misfits so well exemplified by Orson Scott Card’s Ender Wiggin. The atypical teenager, despised for his differences but with hidden worth and a secret power to save others, is a powerful trope and one I daresay is particularly likely to resonate with adolescents and adults who read for pleasure. Not to mention that a full book, let alone a series, that presented teenagers acting entirely like regular teenagers would get tedious pretty quickly, and not just I suspect for adult readers.

Having said that, and acknowledging that most teenage boys really aren’t budding sociopaths, I have to add that this is a series that says a lot about what it feels like to be a teenage boy, especially the second and third book. And I don’t mean that in a negative way. John Wayne Cleaver is memorable, and he’s real, and he’s someone I wouldn’t mind getting to know and spend time with, though I have to admit I’d be a little nervous if he were dating my daughter.

The stories are helped along by frequent touches of humor, many of them arising out of the juxtaposition between the normal realities of teenage life and Cleaver’s specific challenges. Here’s an example of a paragraph (from early in the second book) which I as a reader can’t stop snickering over, though it may be that you have to have spent some time with Cleaver as a character before it will seem funny. Cleaver has just baked a cake for Mother’s Day, and they’re waiting for his sister to show up:

The cake was already done and cooling on the counter, so I was browsing through the paper. I noted with pleasure that Karla Soder had been admitted to the hospital for extended care; she was one of the oldest people in Clayton, and I’d been waiting for her to die for a while now. We hadn’t embalmed anybody in more than a month. (p. 47)

To some degree, this is funny because we’ve been pulled into Cleaver’s world, where a death means more business and a chance for Cleaver to satisfy his desire to cut up bodies in a harmless and even socially acceptable way. Unlike many stories that feature violence as a dominant theme, however, Wells’s books don’t invite us to put our conscience on hold for a while and just accept the blood and gore. Even when Cleaver is forced to kill — because how else are you going to deal with a demon who’s killing people to perpetuate its own existence? — we’re all too aware of the cost.

Which brings me to the supernatural element, which at first seems like an almost unnecessary gesture toward the current market reality that books about teenagers fighting demons seem to do better than books where the teenage protagonists face more mundane opponents. But there’s more to it than that. Many years ago, J. R. R. Tolkien, writing about the supernatural monsters in Beowulf, declared: “It is the strength of the northern mythological imagination that it . . . put the monsters in the centre, gave them Victory but no honour, and found a potent but terrible solution in naked will and courage.” Cleaver isn’t a doomed northern hero. But there are elements of his situation that work better, both thematically and from a plot perspective, with demons who must be fought if innocents are to survive, who cannot be countered by regular law enforcement.

Some might argue that this makes things too easy by giving Cleaver a clear moral justification for his actions. But that’s not the point. This isn’t a story about some Hamlet who must decide whether or not violent action is justified. Rather, it’s the story of a warrior like David who must somehow learn how to fight without staining his soul with the blood he’s spilled. Or something like that. A moody teenage David, who has to worry about whether he’s becoming a psychopath. (And wouldn’t that make an interesting historical novel? Or maybe not.)

*****

On reading I Am Not a Serial Killer (and knowing there were two more to come), I worried whether the basic idea was going to get stale. Let’s face it: part of the attractiveness of the first book is its novelty. This is a premise which mostly hasn’t been done before (although some reviewers have compared the book to the TV series Dexter, which I have never watched). More of the same could get old very fast.

For me that doesn’t happen, not because Wells comes up with clever new twists and variations (though there are some of those) but primarily because of the changes in Cleaver — and because of the successively broader lenses each story occupies. The first book is largely private, focusing on what happens when the imaginings of Cleaver’s inner life start to confront him outside the confines of his own mind. The second book shows us where Cleaver comes from, his family and his intense desire to protect and strike back against those who threaten what is precious to him. The third book shows him coming to understand what love and sacrifice for others really mean, ultimately at a great cost.

It’s a devastating progression. Wells has said in no uncertain terms that this is the last in the series, and I for one am glad, because I honestly don’t know where he could go from here that wouldn’t diminish the story he’s told so far. The first book is clever and fun; the second well-written and thought-provoking; the third . . . astonishing, and sad, and deeply moving. Well worth it, in my view — undoubtedly the best of the three — but also undoubtedly the hardest to read. You’ve got to be willing to face some really tough stuff to get through this book.

*****

John Wayne Cleaver isn’t Mormon. On the whole, I think that’s a good thing. Not only does it avoid possible stupidities from publishers about Wells limiting his audience, it also avoids the need to spend a lot of time and space on Mormon beliefs about the supernatural, which would I suspect have been boring to most non-Mormon readers (and many Mormons as well) and probably couldn’t have been handled to anyone’s satisfaction. Put another way: the book is chock-full of issues and plot twists and life realities as it is. Working Mormon issues into top of that would have been like adding chocolate syrup and butterscotch sauce on top of a piece of baklava. It would be overkill, if you’ll pardon the expression.

A critical question that the books persistently raise is whether Cleaver’s small acts of propitiation toward his own inner demon — his research on serial killers, helping out in the family mortuary, minor acts of controlled arson in an abandoned warehouse — represent necessary compromises or a fascinated dalliance with evil that makes it all the more likely that he’ll eventually be sucked in fully. His white-knuckled adherence to rules that are intended to keep him away from the more dangerous behaviors typical of serial killers — for example, complimenting someone when he desires to strike out violently against them — seems ultimately doomed to failure. Certainly the circumstances that keep forcing him into violent confrontations with demons do nothing for his self-control.

Part of the problem is that some of his rules seem like such disastrously bad ones. Don’t look at a pretty girl more than three times in the day, even if she comes up to you and starts talking? That’s a strategy that seems doomed to make Cleaver’s social isolation even worse. At the same time, we as readers understand why he does it. And even though his specific issues aren’t ours, the whole thing reminds us of the hell that is adolescence, when self-control often seems like an elusive holy grail and half or more of the time what you do seems to wind up accomplishing the opposite of what you had hoped, for reasons that don’t even make sense.

Below is a brief selection that I think captures Wells’s skills in depicting Cleaver’s character and the knife edge he walks. It’s the night after Mother’s Day, and Cleaver has decided he has to go out and burn something in order to relieve stress following a disastrous family dinner.

The fire was calling to me.

The warehouse reflect bright gray moonlight from its cinder block walls, shining dully in the clearing. I was grinning now. This was the time when the lines inside me blured, and Mr. Monster became simply John Cleaver: not a killer but a boy; not a monster but a human being. Fire was my great catharsis, but this prelude moment was my purest freedom — the one brief respite when I didn’t have to worry about what Mr. Monster wanted to do, because he and I wanted the same thing. Once I’d made my decision to light a fire, I wasn’t at war with myself anymore; I was just me, and everything made sense. (Mr. Monster, p. 61)

What Wells gives us, here and elsewhere in the books, is an unflinching look into the darkness that threatens all of us. Cleaver fights the good fight, but in the end we sense that he doesn’t really have it in him to escape his own nature. Not, at least, without help from others — help that for most of the books, no one seems capable of giving him.

For much of the books, Cleaver is sympathetic enough that we don’t take his dilemma with full seriousness. That’s our mistake as readers. Wells doesn’t make the same mistake, which I suppose is why the series has to end, instead of just continuing on indefinitely. Ultimately, Cleaver is redeemed, or at least we sense that he can be, and in a way that doesn’t feel forced or allegorical because it makes sense in terms of characters we have come to know and believe in.

So should you read these books? Yes, if you can stand to do so. If you can put up with a little teen humor, embarrassment, and gruesomeness, with an undertone of genuine feeling leading up to some real emotional gut punches in the final book — then yes, it’s well worth the ride. And if you care about Mormon literature and want to know what an LDS writer can do with Mormon themes in a series without a single LDS character, then you should probably read these books too. Taken together, they are, quite honestly, some of the best books I’ve read in a long time.

9 comments: “Destiny, Demons, and Freewill in Dan Wells’s John Wayne Cleaver Books

  1. Em Jen

    Hear, hear! I glowingly reviewed this for the DNews (forthcoming) and just wanted to echo your lauding as well. Especially the last bit about it being one of the best books (series) I’ve read in a while. Well done, Mr. Wells.

  2. proud daughter of eve

    I don’t do horror because there are just things I don’t want to have in my head even for fun, but I’ve got a friend who does like that stuff and I’ll have to suggest these to her. Thanks!

    *peeks around AMV for any updates on the “Bedlamites” contest* (I know you won’t have picked the winners yet. But this was so much fun, I was kinda sad when the deadline came.)

  3. Wm Morris

    Okay, I just finished the third book. As you say — devastating. But the progression is indeed fantastic.

  4. Mhambster

    I have read the first of these books and very much enjoyed it. I didn’t find it gruesome, at least not in the sense that people usually think when they think of horror. I think too often people think of horror as gore-fests, and that’s not what this is, which comes across clearly in this review.
    Although . . . Now I am wondering what I’m in for in the third book. Can’t wait to read it though.
    And, lastly, I may never think of baklava in quite the same way again. I’ll be sitting with friends, enjoying a nice piece of baklava, and I’ll say something like “You know, this baklava is like a well-written horror novel . . .”

  5. Heather Moore

    I’ve heard that the book is considered adult horror in the United States, not YA horror. Therefore, Wells is considered an adult horror writer, not YA writer. Only in Europe is it marketed to teens, especially in Germany where Wells is a bestselling author. The age of the protagonist does not always determine the genre, and Wells’ series is a prime example.

  6. Jonathan Langford

    Heather,

    A good point. At his book signing last Saturday in Minneapolis, Dan said that he doesn’t consider the books YA.

    I think a lot depends on who’s doing the categorizing. No Going Back (my own novel about a gay LDS teenager) was not considered YA by me or by the publisher, but was classified as YA fiction by several reviewers, including at least one professional librarian. I wrote about this, together with more general thoughts about definitions of YA fiction (particularly Mormon YA fiction), here at A Motley Vision a year ago: http://www.motleyvision.org/2010/some-definitional-thoughts-about-ya-mormon-fiction.

    In the case of Dan’s books, I think that a fair number of teenagers could enjoy the books — basically anyone who enjoys the horror/supernatural genre. But I agree that doesn’t necessarily make it a YA series.

  7. Katya

    I think a lot depends on who’s doing the categorizing.

    My local public library has all three of the books classed as YA, so the larger point would seem to be that there are multiple people involved in evaluating the genre of a book (writers, publishers/marketers, reviewers, librarians, and readers), and when a book is an edge case, different groups may go in different directions.

    At any rate, I don’t see a problem with calling the series YA horror, although it’s probably nice to acknowledge that it may have been marketed (or even originally written) with a different audience in mind.

  8. FoxyJ

    Our library has them in the general fiction (for adults). I feel OK with this classification; a teenage protagonist does not always equal YA fiction, and I thought that they might be too intense/graphic for some younger readers of YA lit. Many kids start reading YA by 11-12 and I’m not sure I’d want one of my kids reading these at that young age.

  9. Th.

    .

    I put off reading this review until I finished reading the books, but now that I have I just want to let loose a hearty amen and leave it at that.

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