Horror isn't about fear of death, not really. Horror is about something more primal, more basic: fear. The best horror novels (and the worst, and a lot in between) are steaming with fear: fear of death, yes, but also fear of pain, fear of anger. Of rejection. Incompetence. Meaninglessness. Vulnerability. Sex. Society. Identity.
Fear of one's self.
Is it any wonder that so many horror novels feature teen-aged or college-aged protagonists, characters who are of an age when those concerns are totally consuming?
Fred Venturini's The Samaritan begins where a lot of horror begins: middle school. Thirteen-year-old Dale finds himself at the mercy of a group of really awful, but attractive, girls; going along with whatever humiliation they're inflicting on him is terrible, yes. But it also makes him the center of their attention, however briefly, and (being a horny 13-year-old boy), that's exactly where he wants to be - again, however briefly.
[A few unavoidable spoilers from here - sorry! To be safe, skip the next few paragraphs.]
The experiment yields unexpected results when Dale winds up making friends with a guy called Mack, an all-around awesome, athletic, funny, boys-want-to-be-him girls-want-to-do-him type, who tries to teach Dale about self-respect. Their friendship continues through high school, though Dale's self-hatred never quite allows him to buy what Mack is trying to sell him. A series of testosterone-fueled run-ins with a violent senior (high school senior, not senior citizen) named Clint leads to tragedy, when Clint rapes the girl Dale's in love with and murders her and four other students. He also gives Mack a career-ending wound and shoots Dale through the hand. And possibly the head.
The day Dale removes his bandages, he finds he's wholly healed - everything that had been shot off has regrown.
And so Dale grows up, but never goes on: he remains haunted by his terrible guilt, not about Clint's actions but about a single, unguarded thought that flitted through his mind during the tragedy. He spends years isolated and angry, trapped in his own head by his own conscience. Until the day he meets Raeanna, the twin sister of the girl Clint murdered, years before.
Stimulated by Raeanna's own tragedies and led to experiment with his regenerative abilities, Dale decides that he's finally found a way to make up for what happened years before. He gets Mack, now a successful wheeler-dealer, on board with his plan... and starts giving his body-parts away. On reality tv. Of course, deep in his heart, Dale knows he's trying to atone not for the atrocities Clint perpetuated, but that single, horrible thought. But, superficially, he's helping people without expecting any reward, and making the world a better place, right?
[Ok, you can come back now.]
Who says redemption can't be bought?
The Samaritan is a horror novel, of course, so it's bursting with blood and guts and suppurating wounds. But, like the best horror novels, it uses the visceral as an anchor to explore the worst of the human condition - all those fears, the anger, the pain, and the self-loathing that make people such complicated, fucked-up animals. Dale's a kid with problems to begin with, but his life gets much, much worse after he becomes a victim in a tragedy - not because of any physical trauma, but because of his guilt. Because he had a terrible moment, and thought a terrible thing. A thing that anyone might have thought, in the same situation. Dale hates himself, because Dale fears himself.
Venturini's accomplishment with The Samaritan lies in that single moment, and the way he explores its fall-out, and how guilt lacerates a body as horrifically as any physical trauma. Healing from guilt is just as difficult as healing from injury. And guilt leaves scars, too. [Anne]
From 16 January to 3 February, members of The Kitschies' judging panel will be discussing all of the 2011 finalists. Each review only reflects the view of that judge, and should not be taken as representative of the panel's collective opinion or final selection.