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!)


  1. Like the premise, but sounds a little heavy for young audiences. When a novel gets the ‘YA’ stamp it ends up in elementary school classrooms and libraries, in my experience. BB even tagged this review KIDS- different from Young Adult. The cover says ‘Demented’ and ‘Noxious’ – is this what kids are wanting, or are we just giving them what we want to write? As a parent I am worried about the mainstreaming of previously taboo subjects. Some of the books our school librarian sent home with my 4th grade son are noting but stalking, hiding and killing. Page after page of violent thoughts and deeds in the guise of alternate universe or fantasy fiction. NOT COOL! And for those who would suggest I don’t have to let my child read this stuff, would it follow that I don’t have to let him interact with his violence-prone peers who do read this?

    That being said, who hasn’t thought about popping a few gold teeth off a corpse, huh?

    1. I think you greatly underestimate what children are capable of handling.

      In 1st grade I chose, for a book report, a book about a war between (essentially) wizards and psionicists. Plenty of fighting and death in there. Sneaking, ambushing, swordplay. This is also the year in which I started learning martial arts.

      In 4th grade I was reading Animorphs, in which kids are forced to fight a war against aliens who take over the bodies of their friends and relatives. I also read The Hobbit and The Chronicles of Narnia that year.

      And consider the stories we tell our children before they can even read. Hansel and Gretel are children who go out alone in the woods, and stuff a woman in an oven rather than let her eat them. Cinderella is an abused stepchild. Little Red Riding Hood gets eaten by a wolf before the hunter kills the wolf and gets her out. Go tell the Brothers Grimm about what was “previously taboo.” How about The Lion King and Snow White, in which the death of a parent is followed by a relative who wants the child dead? Disney plays with some very heavy stuff.

      By 6th grade I started on R.A. Salvatore’s Forgotten Realms novels. These are fantasy novels (swordplay and magic) but the primary theme is gaining acceptance in the face of prejudice and racism, while trying to escape a brutal past.

    2. I have been a librarian working with children for a number of years. First of all, THANK YOU for taking an active role in your child’s education by watching what he reads and taking the time to discuss it with him!
      As for exposing kids to “previously taboo subjects” or letting them interact with peers consuming the same, it has been my experience that kids who pick up these sorts of books are doing so because it speaks to them on some real level. Kids who are dealing with abuse read books about survivors of it; kids from violent backgrounds read about how others escaped; and “regular” kids in functional homes read to make themselves feel like their life might not be so bad after all.
      It has been my experience that kids who aren’t emotionally ready to deal with these themes choose for themselves books that are more in line with their interests, feelings, and beliefs, and turn away from titles dealing with heavier issues.
      Read this:
      and you’ll get an idea of what I mean.

  2. I’ve read this book and it’s wonderful. Kudos to Cory and Boing Boing for bringing it the attention it deserves.

    @DJBudSonic, usually I shy away from excessive gore-for-gore’s sake books too. But this one worked for me. The unexpectedly touching (and yet totally unsentimental) father-son story at its heart gives emotional force to all the grave-robbing shenanigans. I especially enjoyed the portrayal of the sad, furtive subculture of grave-robbers, a loose-knit group of old men who realize that their best days are behind them, and there are no young ones — except the hero — to take their place. To address your concern, there is zero chance someone would want to become a grave robber after reading this book. The grisliness is not glamorous. Really, how can you glamorize grave-robbing? It’s muddy, back-breaking, disgusting, debasing work, and this book serves it to you in all its specific hideous detail.

    I loved this book. To be sure, for high school and up, and teenaged fans of Stephen King.

  3. This book sounds FASCINATING!! Definitely will pick it up soon.

    @DJBudSonic, I think your concern for children is sweet but perhaps misguided. When it comes to censorship and related issues, I think children are underestimated. They’ll eventually see and hear the things that parents try to “protect” them from. Start banning books – not like the internet doesn’t contain millions of pages of grotesque information (and images). Kids with problems have deeper issues than the books they read or music they hear. For the record, when I was a kid I had to get my parents’ permission to checkout the Goosebumps books because I was ahead of my class in reading comprehension. I LOVED those books, as did many of my friends, and think we turned out pretty well adjusted.

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