Saturday, July 9, 2016

REVIEW: I Am Not a Serial Killer (book) by Dan Wells

I Am Not a Serial Killer is a thriller with fantasy/horror aspects. It may count as YA, but I'm honestly not sure about that.


John Wayne Cleaver thinks it's his fate to become a serial killer, and he's doing what he can to try to avoid it. He's attending his therapy sessions with Dr. Neblin, and he's made up all kinds of rules for himself, based on commonly recognized indicators that someone might become a serial killer. No paying too much attention to one particular person, no hurting animals (in fact, as little contact with animals as possible), etc.

He enjoys helping his mom and aunt out at their mortuary. The bodies and embalming process fascinate him, and he likes the quiet. However, something new going on in town has snagged his attention: murders that he thinks are the work of a real serial killer. As he looks into the deaths as much as possible without technically breaking his rules, he starts to believe that he's the only person in town who stands any chance of stopping the killer.

I should have reviewed this several weeks ago, but I needed time to make sense of my emotions. I'm still not quite sure how I feel.

This was on B&N's “5 Sci-Fi & Fantasy Books That Treat Mental Illness with Compassion” list. The comparison to Jeff Lindsay's Dexter intrigued me, but also made me raise an eyebrow about the book's inclusion on the list. Dexter was a child who witnessed terrible things and whose cop foster father then declared him broken beyond repair and began molding him in ways that he approved of more. If Dexter was destined to be a killer, then Harry was at least going to make sure that he chose the “right” victims. (I've enjoyed what I read of the Dexter series, but I'm also willing to admit that the series has issues.)

I do think this book handled John, a similar character, better in some ways. His mom signed him up for therapy sessions and didn't just give up on him, although there were definitely times when she was overwhelmed by his behavior and Antisocial Personality Disorder diagnosis. I've never personally been in therapy, but I thought that Dr. Neblin and his sessions seemed decent. And John certainly did the best he could to explain his emotions to Dr. Neblin and his mom, to behave appropriately, and to at least act like a good person even if a large part of him didn't think he really was one.

If I hadn't originally learned about I Am Not a Serial Killer via a list that specifically mentioned sci-fi and fantasy, the developments surrounding the murders probably would have surprised me even more. Up to a certain point, there were hardly any signs that this was anything more than a contemporary thriller/murder mystery. There was some foreshadowing, a few mentions of demons, but those could have been signs that John was maybe losing the ability to tell fantasy from reality. Anyway, the demon thing turned out to be very real.

One odd thing I'd like to mention, though, was that this demon thing was just assumed to be fact. No one ever told John that he was dealing with a demon, the being didn't call itself a demon, and John didn't do any research that told him it was a demon. It was just a demon, period.

The beginning of the book was pretty gross, with detailed descriptions of corpses and the embalming process. I found this stuff to be both interesting and a little stomach-turning, but I decided I could deal with it. I figured that this and the murders would be the worst that the book would throw at me, but I was wrong. John deciding to abandon his rules in order to deal with the killer turned out to be more disturbing than anything else.

As a character, John left me feeling torn. I felt like I could empathize with him if not always like him, and yet I also worried about a lot of the people around him, especially once he decided to ditch his rules. Being inside John's head was...uncomfortable. I was very unhappy with and horrified by one particular thing he decided to do in order to try to stop the killer, to the point where I had to stop reading for a bit. I could understand his reasoning, but I didn't agree with it. The moment near the end, when John's mom hugged him and told him he was a good boy who'd done a good thing would have been so much better without that earlier decision on John's part (that his mom didn't know about - she'd probably have been at least as horrified as I was).

Wells did a great job of writing John's POV. Probably the best moment was when I realized that some of the killer's actions were inspired by feelings and motivations that John wasn't able to see, because he didn't feel those things himself. Of course, that was also the moment when I became deeply worried about what he was going to do next. This book... It gave me mixed emotions for both John and the monster he was hunting.

It looks like this series has 5 works in it now. Although this first one was very good, I doubt I'll be reading more. The thought of reading more of John's POV after what happened at the end of this book makes me too anxious.

Although John is a teen, I don't know whether this qualifies as YA, and it looks like even the people marketing it aren't sure. According to Wikipedia, "in the UK it’s a YA horror, in Germany it’s an adult thriller, and in the US it’s being marketed to both audiences."

Read-alikes and Watch-alikes:
  • I Hunt Killers (book) by Barry Lyga - This one is definitely a YA thriller, although I'm sure it has plenty of adult fans as well. The main character is the son of an infamous serial killer and a witness to many of his dad's crimes. Although he fears he might some day become like his father, he's not nearly as uncomfortable a protagonist as John. I've written about this book.
  • Darkly Dreaming Dexter (book) by Jeff Lindsay; Dexter (live action TV series) - The book and the TV series based on them diverge sharpy after the first book and first season. You could say Dexter is a grown-up John, except no one ever really tried to help him and he never created rules for himself - his foster father made up rules for him, ones designed to focus his attention on other criminals and to keep him from being caught. I've written about one of the later books in the series, as well as the second season of the TV series.
  • Odd Thomas (book) by Dean Koontz - This may seem like a strange read-alike, but bear with me. Odd and John are both introspective characters, although Odd is a more sympathetic and empathetic character. I was particularly reminded of Koontz's book when I Am Not a Serial Killer's fantasy aspects jumped to the forefront - the Odd Thomas series has quite a few fantasy and even some religious elements. I've written about the movie and one of the later books.

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