But, when Kraus agreed to be a part of the Booklist week here on 31 Days of Horror, after calling me out this summer for not having read Rotters yet, I knew I needed to make it a priority.
I am glad I did. But I have to say, although this book is very dark and gory at times, it is not full out horror in the traditional sense. What I mean is that in Rotters the monsters are very real. They are people, not vampires or zombies. But I am getting ahead of myself. Here is the publisher's summary:
Grave-robbing. What kind of monster would do such a thing? It's true that Leonardo da Vinci did it, Shakespeare wrote about it, and the resurrection men of nineteenth-century Scotland practically made it an art. But none of this matters to Joey Crouch, a sixteen-year-old straight-A student living in Chicago with his single mom. For the most part, Joey's life is about playing the trumpet and avoiding the daily humiliations of high school.
Everything changes when Joey's mother dies in a tragic accident and he is sent to rural Iowa to live with the father he has never known, a strange, solitary man with unimaginable secrets. At first, Joey's father wants nothing to do with him, but once father and son come to terms with each other, Joey's life takes a turn both macabre and exhilarating.
Daniel Kraus's masterful plotting and unforgettable characters make Rotters a moving, terrifying, and unconventional epic about fathers and sons, complex family ties, taboos, and the ever-present specter of mortality.That's the set up. Here is more about why you would enjoy reading it (or not).
So that macabre turn his life takes, well, his dad is a grave robber. Joey not only loses his mother and is sent to live with a Dad he doesn't know, but that Dad is gone all the time. Add to the fact that he is getting bullied at school, and Joey quickly becomes lonely.
Once he figures out what his Dad does when he disappears, things change for Joey. His Dad teaches him the ancient art of grave robbing. The story that follows is Joey's coming of age. As he embraces the Digger life, Joey descends into darkness, but it in this world of death and crimes he is finally finding a place to fit in.
The story then begins its slow spiral downward, as Joey's life turns more away from that of a normal high school boy and into a world of crime and decomposing bodies.
As I said above, there is no supernatural element here, so technically it is not horror. But like a horror novel, the pacing starts slow and the tone dark. It as it builds to become more tense and dark, the pacing follows suit. The last 50 pages are a roller coaster ride ending with a violent finish. But rest assured, this a a YA novel so Joey is able to move on at the end.
It is important to note that there is a huge subplot involving Joey being bullied at school. It is bad bullying but he exacts a pretty horrific revenge. This subplot firmly places this novel in the YA realm. Me, I could take that or leave it, but teens will love it. They will root for Joey the outcast as he gets the bullies.
The 2 main appeal factors here are the frame and the characters. Let's start with the frame. There are A LOT of details here about grave robbing, grave digging, and decomposition of bodies. If you are already a horror fan, this is no big deal. If you are squeamish and enjoy more psychological horror, this book is not for you. Personally, I thought the detail was worked into the story very well. Everything flowed; it didn't feel gratuitous. The details of "Rotters" and "Diggers" were woven into Joey's coming of age story. We learn the ropes along with him, and even though Joey makes bad choices, we are so caught up with him in this dark, macabre world, that like him we too go along with the grave robbers without putting up much of a fight. We too get sucked into the world, the danger, the storied history of grave robbing, etc....
The characters are amazing here as well. I have mentioned Joey a bunch but all of the characters are very well drawn. I want to especially point out Boggs, the overall villain of the story. He is bad, bad, bad. Kraus paints his reeking, decaying, vileness excellently. You can smell his evil. This is key to making the story more than just gross. Kraus' skill with Boggs make is frightening.
Overall, this is an excellent YA novel especially for fans who like their stories dark and gruesome but thought provoking. There is no supernatural here, so it might also be a nice choice for readers who like crime fiction, but there is plenty of tension, darkness, and gore to satisfy most horror fans. It is scary because it all could happen.
Three Words That Describe This Book: grave robbing, bullying, character centered
Readalikes: There are a couple of directions you can go here for readalikes.
If you want to read more novels with "bullying" try the classic The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier.
If you want more orphaned kid with some grave robbing thrown in try the Alex Award winning The Good Thief.
If you just want more great creepy stories. The Graveyard Book by Neil Gaiman is one of the best books I have ever read. It again has the orphaned kid angle, lots of graveyard scenes, ton of tension, and a compelling plot.
If you specifically want critically acclaimed teen horror, without matching any other appeals I would highly suggest:
- Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin series keeps racking up the awards, deservedly so (my review of the first book is here).
- Kelley Armstrong walks the line between dark fantasy and horror. Try The Summoning.
- Rick Yancy writes literary horror much like Kraus. The Monstrumologist has a complex historical frame.
- Go a little old school with Lois Duncan. I Know What You DId Last Summer and Down a Dark Hall are great choices.
Finally, check out Monster Librarian's teen horror page for more ideas.