Rotters: YA horror novel about grave-robbing chills, thrills, delights

Daniel Kraus's young adult novel Rotters tells the unlikely story of Joey Crouch, a 16 year old boy from Chicago whose mother is killed by a bus; Joey is sent to live with his mysterious father in small-town Iowa, and that's when things get weird. Joey's father is taciturn, he smells bad, he lives in a shack, and he doesn't seem interested in being any sort of father (or even roommate) with his long-lost son. Joey is an instant pariah at high-school, subjected to tortures and humiliations thanks in part to his father's reputation as the town weirdo, and in part to the fact that Joey's home has no facility for washing clothes and its unique smell clings to him and all his possessions.

Thus far, it sounds like a story about a kid who's dad is mentally unbalanced, or neglectful, or sadistic, but when Joey stows away in the bed of his father's truck to see where the old man goes on his long absences, he learns the truth: his father is a grave robber.

Joey's intrusion into his father's secret life opens a floodgate in the old man, and before long, Joey has become his somewhat unwilling apprentice, though his reluctance turns to enthusiasm as he is inducted into the many mysteries and traditions of the ancient brethren of grave-robbers. Kraus takes us on a narrative tour of the science of putrefaction and decay, the economics of the funeral industry, the history of the Resurrection Men who plundered English and Scottish graves to fill the dissection rooms of hungry medical colleges.

But most of all, Joey learns about his mother's secret past, the strange circumstance that brought her and his father together and the tragedy that drove them apart, and as he unlocks his own history, Joey begins to master his bullies at school and the relationships in his life.

Rotters is an epic, 450 pages long, and it is as suspenseful and masterfully told as it is gruesome and terrifying. Kraus conveys the full horror and beauty of our bodies' inevitable return to the soil without playing for cheap thrills or easy gross-outs. You'd be hard pressed to find a coming-of-age story as satisfying as this in any YA novel. That Kraus manages this tour-de-force in the midst of liquefying corpses and maggoty dirt is a marvel itself, and marks him out as a writer whose future books I'll anticipate with impatient pleasure.

Rotters (Thanks, Scott!)