The horror genre has a lot of good lyrical writers and a lot of good visceral writers. Most of the time, those traits are exclusive. I don’t know why. Perhaps those who write with a more visceral style use conversational tone in order to maximize the effect. Brian Keene and Jack Ketchum are two examples. Their books are well-written, but so linguistically relaxed that the words disappear. On the other end of the spectrum, writers like Ramsey Campbell and Peter Straub write lyrically and specialize in so-called “quiet horror.” Much like the artist who works with negative space, these writers use what isn’t on the page as much as they do the written words.
There are several writers who are exceptions to the rule, and one of the best among them is Stephen Graham Jones. His novel The Least of My Scars serves as an example of what can be done when lyrical writing meets visceral imagery. It is an exceptional example of that grey area between horror and noir fiction.
William Colton Hughes is a serial killer. He lives in an apartment complex, supported by a mob boss. His job is simple. When the boss sends someone to the door, Hughes kills them and disposes of the body in a methodical way that has to be read to be believed. The apartment exists as Hughes’s little chunk of paradise, an island where he settles in to a homicidal dream-come-true. That dream crumbles, along with Hughes’s sanity, as the story progresses.
The novel is told from Hughes’s perspective. Using an unreliable, unsympathetic narrator is tricky, but Jones pulls it off masterfully. Another reviewer/writer, Caleb J. Ross jokingly called the book “Native American Psycho.” Certainly, The Least of My Scars reminds you of Bret Easton Ellis’s book, as well as Joyce Carol Oates’s Zombie. You feel no empathy for Hughes. It doesn’t matter. All the other characters are just as rotten as he is, but without the excuse of insanity.
Jones really shines the grey areas. Hughes’s plight forces the reader to rethink ideas of reality/fantasy, sanity/insanity, life/death, paradise/hell, and victim/predator. Who are the real bad guys, and does it even matter at this point? There is a lot going on. Due to Hughes’s slipping sanity, the reader runs the danger of losing a grip on what is real and what is a product of Hughes’s twisted imagination. The entire story takes place in a single set of apartments, and most of the time Hughes is the only character in the scene. Still, it works. Despite all of the literary techniques that should blow up in Jones’s face, it works brilliantly.
It’s disturbing, visceral, and at times funny and beautiful. It’s Stephen Graham Jones at his best. If you like this type of book, you will love The Least of My Scars. If you are easily offended by violence and disturbing images, then you would be better off reading something else. Your skin will crawl, your stomach will turn, and you will be left breathless at the end.