Here’s something completely different! Prepare to be horrified. And probably disgusted and sickened a little too. And definitely prepare to have your ideas of “horror and YA” be amended. Daniel Kraus’ Scowler is not for the faint of heart, that’s for sure.
Daniel Kraus confirms his talent for writing the true psychological (and physically revolting) horror that he also used in Rotters. And just like in Rotters, the reader should not expect Kraus to compromise. This is a ‘take-no-prisoners’ story which takes the reader to the most extreme situations imaginable. Think of Stephen King’s The Shining and/or Silence of the Lambs type horror and you might get close to what Ry Burke – the 19-year-old protagonist – is going through here.
Ry lives with his mother Jo Beth and younger sister Sarah at the family’s dying and secluded farm in Iowa. It’s 1981 and Marvin, Ry’s father is in prison for inflicting the worst possible abuse on his wife ánd son. It’s taken years for Ry and his mother to somewhat recover, and now Ry’s mother feels it’s time to move on and she’s finally decided to pack up so they can move into town. However, before they get to leave, a stranger calls at the farm… and this man who turns out to be an escaped convinct, and who also brings them the worst possible of news about Marvin Burke.
Marvin’s ‘return’ coincides with the 1981 August meteor shower and meteorites fall from the sky onto the Burke farmland. The return of Marvin forces Ry to go back into his own past and relive the events of what happened in 1971 and 1972. This story is then told in flashbacks. We learn about the horrible things Marvin did to Jo Beth and Ry, and how Ry found some kind of coping devices in 3 old ‘toys’: Mr Furrington, a stuffed animal, a Jesus Christ figurine and Scowler, an ugly and twisted hunk-typed thing.
The things that Marvin did to Jo Beth are truly horrific, and it’s obvious that Marvin is just an all-around psychopath. But Kraus doesn’t leave it at that. What is the more interesting question here is the effect having a psycho-dad has on Ry. What did Ry have to do to save his mother in the past? What did Ry have to do to cope with the trauma afterwards? And what does Ry have to do now that Marvin is back with revenge on his mind? To truly take care of his mother and little sister, Ry will have to face the darkness that is in him and decide whether to use this darkness against Marvin or not. In this, the 3 ‘toys’ (the Unnamed Three) are significant. Once they were actual toys to Ry, but over time they have become different aspects of his own personality, and some of those aspects may be too horrible for Ry to revisit.
Just like Rotters, Scowler is a truly disturbing read. However, I’d argue that it’s not horror for horror’s sake. Despite its horrifically realistic and gory imagery, it’s also a brilliant example of characterization. Ry’s search for his own self is a scary journey for the reader, and it will lead Ry as well as the reader into unknown territories of his own mind, a point where the conscious and the subconscious collide, where the real and the sur-real merge. And it’s not just the characterization of Ry that is done well here. I especially liked how Jo Beth is equally convincingly drawn (the metaphor of the dress is almost heartbreaking).
Scowler is a brutal book, by an unflinching author, as the best authors tend to be. This is a book by someone who dares to go where very few YA authors dare to go. For anyone who likes Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series* and Andrew Smith’s The Marbury Lens and Passenger, Daniel Kraus’ work is a must read!