How do you make a person who can't empathize... sympathetic? Somehow Dan Wells manages it in this story about John Wayne Cleaver, teenage sociopath.
John knows he's not exactly normal, and it's not just because he works in a mortuary. Seeing what he believes to be warning signs that he is destined to become a serial killer, John designs a strict set of rules to prevent himself from moving any further down path of obsession.
When gruesome murders begin occurring in John's hometown, he's not sure if it's the worst thing ever... or the best. Despite his visceral excitement in the proximity of horrific death, he realizes that his instinctive but studied understanding of the inner workings of a serial killer's mind could help him put an end to the string of murders. But in order to catch the killer, John would have to break his own rules and possibly release his own internal monster. As the book follows the horror and mystery of the murders, the real plot involves John getting to know himself and trying to deal with his anxious mother, outcast best friend, and perceptive therapist. And getting to know John on this journey is the real purpose of the story.
This book is grisly, but not gratuitously so. During a recent episode of Writing Excuses, Howard Taylor said of its sequel, Mr. Monster, "I'm not a big fan of horror as a genre. This doesn't feel like a horror book to me. This feels like the scariest book of the kind-that-I-really-love-to-read genre." I definitely would apply that to I Am Not a Serial Killer as well.
I will confess that I avoided reading I Am Not a Serial Killer for awhile because I was afraid I wouldn't like it. Zombies and vampires don't really bother me, but serial killers? Those are a little too real for comfort. Zodiac made me almost never want to go on a picnic again. But this book is a great example of terrifying content handled with great care. I finished the story feeling that perhaps I learned far more about serial killers and sociopathy than I ever wanted to know, but I'm grateful, ironically, for the chance to understand and somewhat sympathize. We all have our inner monsters, even if some might seem more innocent than others. I will probably be holding my breath all the way through Mr Monster.