Ania Ahlborn’s Brother reminds me a lot of Cormac McCarthy’s Child of God, which to me is entirely a good thing. If I were to pitch this book to someone, I would probably say it was like if Erskine Caldwell wrote House of 1000 Corpses.
The Morrows are a family with strange traditions. If “strange” is the best word to describe abducting young women off the back roads of West Virginia, murdering them and then cannibalizing them. Michael, the youngest of the family, is tired of the horrors he lives with everyday. He longs for a normal life. When he meets Alice, a goth chick who works at a record store in the nearby town, he thinks they may be able to run away together. Run away to something better. However, Michael’s sadistic older brother, Rebel, has other plans for them.
Rebel Morrow didn’t possess the usual interest in girls. His were fantasies of a darker sort–the kind of stuff that involved plastic sheeting and electrical tape.
Right from the beginning, Ahlborn brings us inside Michael’s head and creates an oppressively bleak atmosphere.
Michael twisted in his bed, the threadbare blanket he’s used all his life tangled around his legs. A girl was screaming bloody murder outside.
What works best in Brother is that she creates this world of murder and abuse and shows us how it’s the normal life for Michael. At the same time, he’s aware of how not normal it is. There’s always that bit of cruel, teasing hope for him to make everything even worse for him.
The house filled his chest with secret optimism. Clumsy thoughts of his own future home and that leisure that would come with it filled his head. One day he’d spend lazy afternoons painting his own shutters that same perfect hue of green, then watch the birds while sipping on a cold glass of lemonade. The future would be filled with birdsong and the whisper of an easy breeze. There would be no more screaming. No hard whack of a leather strap.
Her knack for description creates vivid scenes. Like a movie playing in your mind. This especially helps when the blood starts to flow. Michael’s “job” in the family tradition is to butcher the bodies of the Morrow’s victims. I won’t quote any part of it here, but her blow-by-blow description of Michael’s “job” at one point is stomach turning.
On top of it all, Ahlborn tells this story masterfully. Like a great thriller, the plot propels forward fast and is full of some genuinely surprising twists. I’m being a bit vague in my review here, but this is a big reason why. It’s a book you really need to experience for yourself.
The book’s got its problems. For example, there are some questionable sentences sprinkled throughout the book.
By the time Alice and Micheal stepped inside the theater, it was 75 percent full.
“75 percent full?” Well, thanks for being so specific. There are also some references to Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz that feel very hackneyed. For all the times those works have been referenced, she doesn’t do anything special with them at all. These feel like nitpicks, but they stood out in an otherwise excellent book.
For as much as I try to promote small press and independent releases, Brother shows that the “Big Four” can still put out some great books. I highly recommend this, especially for fans of both horror and Southern Gothic literature.
Ben Arzate lives in Des Moines, Iowa. His fiction and poetry has appeared in Ugly Babies, Bizarro Central, Spoilage, The Mustache Factor, Twenty Something Press, and Keep This Bag Away From Children. He blogs at http://dripdropdripdropdripdrop.blogspot.com/