Let me get this out of the way: if you like horror or thrillers, or have ever found yourself recreationally reading the Wiki pages for serial killers—or if you've ever said to yourself, "I like Stephen King, but wish there was a more sarcastic, slick, socially-conscious version of him"—then just stop reading this review right here and go get Lauren Beukes's Broken Monsters.
It's that good.
Admittedly, it begins with a not-especially-original scene. Cop shows and murder mysteries all start in the same place: a body on the ground and a tough detective examining the scene. The body in Broken Monsters is a poor black kid in Detroit whose legs have been replaced with the fragile furred limbs of a fawn. It's horrifying, but also alluring—anyone mythologically inclined sees a tiny, broken Pan laid out on the pavement, and wonders whether man or magic created it.
The narrative zooms out and introduces us to the tangled and half-broken lives of our five viewpoint characters. We meet Gabi first, the slightly cliché Latina homicide detective recovering from divorce. Then there's Jonno, the thirty-something failed writer hoping to profit off Detroit's grungy art vibe ("This city is all about the people, who have to burn against the dark. It's the bright against the blight" [p. 103], he declaims arrogantly at a party). TK is a homeless ex-con approximately a thousand times more likable than Jonno, and Gabi's daughter Layla is involved in about sixteen kinds of teenage trouble. Layla was far and away my favorite, because sarcastic brave teenage girls are everything I love in the world, but also because the dynamic between her and her mother ricocheted from heartwarming to heartbreaking and back so beautifully.
The fifth character is the serial killer himself, narrated variously from his own wounded consciousness and a thing calling itself "the dream" which seems to be inhabiting him. And again you're left with your hairs standing on end, wondering—is this manmade madness, or magic?
Or maybe there are six characters. Detroit itself, conjured in all its rambling rust and defiant pop, surely approaches character-hood. Beukes is not a Detroit native, but her journalistic research standards mean the city is recreated non-sensationally, without the grungy veneer of "ruin porn" we've become accustomed to. As she said in a recent interview, Beukes’s dedication to accuracy is also rooted in her experiences as a South African, having seen her home sensationalized, typified, dismissed, and victimized in an endless loop.
All these characters have their own compelling problems, but naturally it turns out they have the same problem: some connection to the series of increasingly deranged murders happening in Detroit. It's not precisely a murder mystery, because the reader knows exactly which shambling nutcase is responsible. But there is some deeper mystery surrounding the motivation for the killing, and the presence of the dream in the killer's head that wants to "rip through the skin between the worlds" (p. 92) and let some abyssal darkness come pouring into our reality.
This "dreaming thing" is the only whiff of the speculative in Broken Monsters (and the mundane-minded might even be able to explain their way around it). It's an old god—or ghost, or dream—trying to claw its way back into our world. Every piece of art it makes is a tiny rip in the delicate fabric of the real. It's never something explained fully or directly, but the imagery is clear: beneath the internet haze of the 2000s lies the industrial wreckage of the 20th century. And beneath that—perhaps there's something older, bloodier, and wilder.
It was this shadowed presence, this ambitious thing, never quite laid out on the operating table for me to see clearly, that was the most chilling.
At this point it's worth mentioning that I don’t do horror particularly well. Not because I think it's boring or campy, but because it works exceptionally well on me. Which means the scariest movie I’ve ever seen was The Sixth Sense (although right after I met my partner we were camping in the Maine woods with nothing to watch but The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and I didn't want to wimp out but the DVD skipped and that’s the closest I've ever come to believing in a higher power). It may therefore seem unimpressive when I tell you that Broken Monsters scared the ever-living crap out of me.
But I have reason to believe it would scare the crap out of you, too. In my limited experience, fear is 99.9% about expectation. And Beukes owns expectation. The murders themselves are relatively few, given that one of the characters is a serial killer, but the spaces between are filled with nail-biting might-have-beens and near-misses. Towards the end of the book I was flinching every time Layla made an appearance, sure that her innocence would draw the killer's deranged eye.
Beukes also owns a particular brand of edged sarcasm that walks a fine line between cool and cruel. Zinzi December, the protagonist of Zoo City (2010), teetered towards unlikable selfishness, and so does Jonno here. It's the kind of dead-on snark that makes even the reader wince, sometimes:
Oh, he's been published in obscure literary magazines with a subscriber base of eight, not including the publisher's mother, or the complimentary contributor copies. All the wannabe writers desperately reading each other's stories, as if they could generate enough energy in a magnetic feedback loop that it would draw some of those damn eyeballs over here. But it's all shit. Even his stuff. (p. 48)
Like her brand of humor, Beukes's cultural references are pinprick-sharp. There are transcripts of Reddit AMAs, YouTube comments, Buzzfeed lists, texted conversations, and online catfishing schemes (accurately) framing the characters' lives. It's not techy-window-dressing, though—a significant amount of time is spent dissecting and displaying the ways that online interactions have shaped and reshaped our social selves.
Even the psycho killer grasps the significance of clicks and eyes in the age of the internet. He needs to be seen, he realizes, to be real, just as "the old gods needed people's faith to make them powerful" (p. 411). And in the final moment, the hellish climax of the book, there are an awful lot of eyes on him.
Read it. For the clever quickness of the writing, for Layla and TK, for the portrait of Detroit in all its decaying glory, and for the powerful and mad things slipping just beneath the surface of our world. Just in time for Halloween.
Alix E. Harrow teaches history and posts speculative fiction reviews on her personal blog. She lives in a romantically dilapidated farmhouse with her partner in Kentucky.
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