(Note: While this review will not contain spoilers for Mr. Monster, it may inadvertently reveal plot surprises from its predecessor, I Am Not A Serial Killer. As always, I recommend reading books in a series in order.)
In I Am Not A Serial Killer, Dan Wells' disturbing debut novel, 15-year-old John Wayne Cleaver kills a murderer. He doesn't want to kill anyone. Not really. Even if he does have dark, violent thoughts. Even if he studies serial killers obsessively. Even if the dead bodies that arrive in his family's mortuary fascinate him a whole lot more than they really should. John's a sociopath, but he's not a killer. At least he wasn't until he came face-to-face with a foe so unbelievable, so formiddable, that the only way to save his town from more grisly murders was to tap into his violent side and take out the monster. Only this monster wasn't human like Ted Bundy or the BTK Strangler. And this monster, apparently, brought along some friends. At least that's what John comes to believe when dead bodies start turning up once again in his hometown.
Mr. Monster begins with a murdered woman discovered in an irrigation canal. John can't be sure it's the work of another demon, but what else makes sense? As other victims are found, John studies the crimes for evidence of an otherworldly killer. His interest in the killings, coupled with his presence at one of the crime scenes, raises the suspicions of Clark Forman, the FBI agent in charge of investigating the killings. Even though Agent Forman finds John's obsession strange, he can't deny the usefulness of John's uncanny ability to get inside the head of a killer. John can't deny it either - hunting down the killer satisfies the hungry need of his inner demon, who he refers to as Mr. Monster. As much as John resists tapping into the side of himself, he has to unleash it in order to truly understand who - or what - is stalking his little town.
The closer John gets to discovering the identity of the murderer, the more perilous his situation becomes. Not only is the killer hunting John, but unleashing Mr. Monster is making John dangerous to himself and everyone around him. Can he control his inner demon long enough to save the town once again or will this new round of murders finally put John over the edge?
Like Wells' first book, Mr. Monster is a deeply disturbing portrait of a boy at war with himself. John's violent thoughts are jarring, while his deep commitment to being a good person makes him complex and even sympathetic. Like I've said before, the most intriguing aspect of this series is its premise, which basically says that no matter what instincts we may or may not have been born with, the decisions we make are ultimately up to us. It's a fascinating concept, the exploration of which makes for some consistently compelling reads. Still, John's constant thoughts of death, combined with some pretty graphic, violent scenes in the book's finale, make Mr. Monster so dark and disturbing, I could barely stomach it. It made me think; it also made me want to vomit. And take some Prozak. So, yeah, I'm definitely on the fence about these ... Have you read them? What do you think?
(Readalikes: I Am Not A Serial Killer and I Don't Want to Kill You (available in the U.S. on March 29, 2011) by Dan Wells; Wells' work also reminds me quite a bit of Stephen King's)
If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for mild language, mild sexual content and graphic/disturbing/violent images
To the FTC, with love: Another library