He’s not a serial killer. At least, he tries not to be. And that’s all that’s important in life, right? Keeping the monster inside from flying off the edge with a knife and pushing you closer to the brink of society.
This is the life of social outcast and high school freshman John Wayne Cleaver, the most unfortunate name for a son of the neighborhood mortician (a professional dead person stylist). Not only does his name sound like it recurs on a wanted list, but it doesn’t help that he’s been happily dressing the dead since he was a little child. Since then, his obsession with the unliving has landed him in therapy, counseling, and at the far corners of the school cafeteria.
But one fateful night, the funeral parlor receives a body murdered in cold blood. The savagery of the killer’s work blurs its identity, leaving authorities bewildered. One by one the townsfolk meet their grisly ends. And like a moth to flame, John begins looking for ways to close in on the killer while wrestling with his own sociopathic tendencies.
The story follows short-term detective and long-term loner John Cleaver who narrates it in the first person. Being the sociopath that he is, the perspective of John isn’t easy to digest at first. When you start reading it you have to get used to vivid details about people’s behaviors, John’s fits of maniacal rage, and the familiar monster he tries hard to hide. You go through his entire thinking process: every conflict, restraint, and rationale he gives the monster within.
The tone is pretty morbid and robotic at times. John Wayne Cleaver is pretty much the most colorful guy in this story since everyone else virtually means nothing to him. While lacking a supporting cast can hurt a story, the short list of characters in this one give it a very clear focus and drive. It’s a pretty satisfying read if you don’t need multiple characters to invest in.
As you may have picked up, John Cleaver is a unique character, which makes this a unique story. That’s why you can read it in two different ways: one as a conventional young adult horror and another as a gripping romance novel of self-discovery. That’s how obsessed John gets by the end of the book. Hear me out: two people chasing each other in the moonlight, one desperately infatuated by their inevitable confrontation and the other aimlessly searching for their secret admirer. Together, they will go on a journey of sociopathic self-discovery and struggle with new passions of ruthless slaughter and mania.
While it may sound like a clear cut mystery story, how do the horror elements of the story hold up? Essentially, there are what I like to call the three D’s of a good horror scene: disarm, disable, and disorient. There is also isolation, but the “three Ds of horror” is a catchier title. Anyway, these elements are essential to building tension and suspense in a scene and leave the characters we get attached to vulnerable as they sink helplessly into the mire of the story.
“I Am Not a Serial Killer” toys with all three Ds of horror. Intense sequences become frequent as John gets closer and closer to solving the case. John may be disarmed and he may not be disabled, but his mind is well oriented and fixated on his prey. Oftentimes in a horror story, the main character, no matter how intrigued they were in the beginning, will often have a moment where they flee in a desperate attempt to get away from the monster. In this case, however, John never leaves the monster’s shadow as his world is slowly swallowed by his intrigue. He becomes the hunter of a hunter.
All in all, “I Am Not a Serial Killer” is a rich, page-turning novel with a unique tone and a well-rounded plot. Although I would classify it more as a mystery novel than horror, I would recommend the book to fans of fast paced thriller stories who are open minded to things getting a little weird. As of May 2016, there are several books in the ongoing series, one of which is a feature length film called “I am not a Serial Killer” if you aren’t the book reading type.