Daniel Kraus's previous book, Rotters, was an outstandingly gross and delightful young adult novel about a kid who discovers that his dad is a grave-robber, and part of an ancient, mystic fraternity of corpse-stealers. It was full of squishy, spectacularly described scenes of decomposition and decay, taut suspense, and perfect gross-out moments. When I picked up his new book Scowler, I expected the same.
Very quickly, though, I realized that I was reading a book squarely aimed at adults, a book that did all the stuff that Rotters had done, but turned the dial up to 11. Where the horror in Rotters was the delicious, peek-between-your-fingers variety, Scowler is built around scenes of such terrifying grisliness and cruelty that it'll keep you up at night for weeks afterwards — the kind of nightmare fuel you get in novels like The Wasp Factory, say. But this isn't gross-out horror: the terror comes as much from piano-wire taut tension and spectacular characters as from viscera.
Indeed, it's the two characters at the center of Scowler that give it its punch. The first is Ry, a gangly, awkward farm-boy who lives with his mother and little sister on a dying farm that is on the brink of bankruptcy. The second is Ry's father, Marvin, who has been in prison ever since he nearly murdered Ry, eight years before, when the boy was only 11, in a horrific encounter that has left Ry emotionally and physically scarred. The novel opens with many ticking bombs: an impending meteor shower, the imminent abandonment of the farm, the stretched-to-breaking relationship between Ry and his mother.
Quickly, the novel goes into overdrive. As we learn more about Ry's past, we discover the sort of monster his father was, and before long, there's the threat that the monster might return — or that Ry might become the monster. Marvin is one of the great monsters of literature, a figure of immense, credible terror and savagery. Ry's own fear that he might become his father is just as credible, and Kraus's masterful raising-of-stakes makes this into the sort of diaster you can't possibly look away from.
Update: Random House Audio has produced an audiobook version read by Kirby Heyborne (who also reads the audio edition of Little Brother), and they sell it as a DRM-free CDs direct from their site (a welcome alternative to Audible/iTunes, which requires DRM for audiobooks even when the publisher and writer object).