Scowler by Daniel Kraus

ScowlerI’ve been following Kraus’ work since shortly after the release of his second novel, Rotters – a book that is at both times terrifying and revolutionary, especially with the majority of fictional works fired at the youth of today being so utterly vapid and brainless.

See, amid the landscape of heroes and heroines, vampires and werewolves, and the whiny, whinier, and whiniest of main characters, came a novel so filled with emotional turmoil and intelligent, thought-provoking subject matter, that our beloved genre barely even noticed. Who was looking at YA besides the publishers and the authors? Not the “hardcore” horror readers. It really doesn’t matter anyways. Nobody was ready for it. Hell, I think most readers probably still aren’t.

In fact, I think most authors aren’t even ready for this level of game. Kraus is in a league of his own.

But I digress. Letting Rotters slip by was the first mistake “horror” readers worldwide made. You don’t let something as powerful as this novel walk on by without telling it to “hold on a minute”. You just don’t.

Why? Because now you have to deal with Scowler, a novel Kraus has been quoted as saying was one of the toughest things he’s ever written – something that terrified him, even as he was penning the damned thing himself. Are you prepared? No. You’re probably not.

So maybe I should be thanking the “horror readers” and the “community” at large for not paying enough attention to the work of this author. Suffice it to say, I’m happy this one flew under the radar.

But hopefully now you’ll understand why I’ve championed Rotters as one of the best YA journeys ever set to paper. Maybe now you’ll come to understand why it won the 2012 Odyssey Award, and the 2012 Parent’s Choice Award.

Or maybe readers will just have to find out just how much of a powerhouse Daniel Kraus is the hard way. Regardless… you’re in for some trouble.

Nineteen-year-old Ry Burke, his mother, and his little sister eke out a living on their dying family farm. Ry wishes for anything to distract him from the grim memories of his father’s physical and emotional abuse. Then a meteor falls from the sky, bringing with it not only a fragment from another world but also the arrival of a ruthless man intent on destroying the entire family. Soon Ry is forced to defend himself by resurrecting a trio of imaginary childhood protectors: kind Mr. Furrington, wise Jesus, and the bloodthirsty Scowler.

– From the cover of Scowler

It should be known by now that I’m of a very one-sided opinion. Kraus is w√ľnderkind of a writer. There’s no doubt about that. And whether or not he wants to be lumped in with the happy hooligans inhabiting the horror genre, I don’t really know. What I do know is that he is a storyteller who refuses to tiptoe through the tulips, instead opting the stomp around and shove the saddest memories of your beloved, very dead, cat in your face… just to make sure you remember what it is to feel hurt, oh so deep down inside. And then just when you thought you were strong enough to handle it… BAM!… he hits you again with emotion after emotion until you’re left shivering from the psychological bludgeoning you’ve experienced in such a short amount of time.

What’s worse is that you’ve probably just loved each and every minute of it.

Between the incredible strife that Kraus puts his main character, Ry, through, to the wholesale emotional torture that befalls the Burke family, it’s very apparent that the author meant to make a very lasting impression this time around. I’d say he intended this novel to leave a sizable scar.

With characters that don’t just read themselves off the page, but rather tell themselves to you (if you follow my meaning), the reader’s job is pretty much done for him or her. Take Mr. Furrington for example. I’ll try not to drop too many spoilers on you, but let’s just admit to the fact that Mr. Furrington isn’t real. I mean… read the name. For anyone who can put two and two together, the name very much alludes to the fact that he’s “furry”… soooo one would have to assume we’re talking about a bear or some other sort animal – leaving out such wonderful creatures as the Naked Mole Rat, obviously. But for argument’s sake (and to stay factual), let’s go with bear, okay? To be specific, think something a little stranger and more oddly constructed than the anthropomorphized, nightmarish Paddington Bear. *shudder* Mr. Furrington’s got a thick English accent, tells moral stories, and tries to direct young Ry along the path of goodness, rather than whatever path of retribution he may well want to travel.

And that’s only one character. I’m not even going to get into Jesus and Scowler, though I do have to seriously suggest readers take note of how the titular character is described – actions and all – in the third act of this book. Dear aspiring authors: THIS is how you write a character. Educate yourselves. Simple, to the point, and terrifying. Learn.

Ahem. Continuing…

I do, however, want to talk about the dynamic between Ry and his father, Marvin – a relationship that is at both times terrifying as it is understandable and vaguely familiar, in a way. Y’see… the kinship between these two is strained, to say the least. It’s violent. It’s sad, and it’s harrowing. But it’s also reminiscent of so many father/son ties that I can’t even begin to describe it properly or do it justice. Just the desire to make your father proud is enough to elicit so many emotions… any child is destined to be blinded by the complete focus of that task at one point or another in their life.

And I’m sure Kraus left a little bit of himself in there somewhere, but I’m also positive he meant for any reader, myself included, to pick the scab on a well hidden memory and leave a small trace of its life-blood somewhere along the way – maybe to mark a page or a passage of note. Regardless, the relationship between Ry and Marvin, while resting confidently in ink, is all too much ours to mold. Whether we read it and just know that it’s so fucked up and wrong, or we read it with a secret shame, sweating because we’ve been to that place, or somewhere close to it, is completely up to the reader.

We all know a Ry and a Marvin. Maybe not to the same extent of those characterized in Scowler, but we still do. Hell, we may even be one of them, or could likely become one of them somewhere down the line.

The point is… even in its oppressive, disturbing, and often violent nature, Kraus manages to describe the innate relationship between a father and son so perfectly that it borders on awe-inspiring in its perfection and sadness.

Now, I don’t want to go on and on about how sad this story is, or how it left me feeling raw and vulnerable, but damn… Kraus did a number on me here. I’m still reeling just thinking about it. And the craziest part of this is that all of my memories of this story are exactly that… they’re memories. They’ve become mine now – not just the words on a page. Hell, I don’t think I’ll even have to go back to the book to pick out my favorite lines or scenes at all. No. All I have to do is close my eyes and re-live it.

Yeah. That sounds right. I think I just nailed everything I was trying to say. That’s what I wanted you to know about this novel, and about Kraus’ writing as a whole.

Daniel Kraus doesn’t just tell you a story. He makes you live it.

That, right there, is reason enough to keep an eye on this author. Because Kraus is one of the last great storytellers of our time – even if the story he’s telling isn’t going to leave you happy.

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