Book Review: I Am Not a Serial Killer, by Dan Wells

My brother Dan (not Wells) reviewed this book a while back and found the book disturbing, both in its content and because it was hard to put down. I can understand that. This is a book that because of its subject matter, one has to feel at least a little self-conscious–maybe even a little guilty–reading, let alone liking.

The premise is simple. John Wayne Cleaver is a teenage boy and a sociopath. He is unable to empathize with people the way others do. Because of this and his unfortunate name (He believe he’s named after John Wayne Gacy and a vicious weapon/tool. His father is named Sam, making him literally The Son of Sam), he is convinced he is destined to become a serial killer. He is also obsessed with serial killers, which is both how he became convinced he’ll become one and how he came to create his list of rules he lives by to keep him from going that direction.

The trouble starts when a brutal murder is committed. John, who is also the son of a mortician, immediately picks up on the clues that this is not just a random crime, but the beginning of a serial killing spree. As more murders occur and information develops he becomes convinced that he’s the only one who can save the town, even though it will mean having to break his rules and risk becoming the killer he fears becoming.

This is not a book for the squeamish. It’s published (in the USA) as Young Adult, but our local library more accurately shelved it in the adult horror section. The murders themselves didn’t bother me so much, but the novel does contain some rather frank descriptions of embalming techniques and what they have to do to make some rather gruesome corpses presentable. Having had a bad experience in a first aid class several years ago I’ve developed anxiety over such descriptions, even in text or verbal format, and sections of this book were difficult for me. There were paragraphs I skipped outright, jumping forward to where I could see they were past the details. So why you’d want to expose your teenagers to this book is beyond me. But it’s also easy to picture teenage boys reading this and thinking, “Whoa! Cool!” and being completely unfazed by this.

That aside, I loved this book. This is not really slasher fiction so much as psychological horror. Yes, there is someone out there murdering people in brutal fashion, but the real horror is watching the progression of John as he loses control of his own inner monster. There is a scene in which you realize how far his control is slipping when he starts stalking innocent people who have no connection to the case. That scene gave me chills more than just about any other in the book. 

And it just gets creepier. It makes us question as we watch John pursue a noble end by increasingly frightening means. The serial killer is a monster, certainly, but John is becoming a monster in his own right–perhaps even worse. Can John save the town and himself at the same time? Don’t expect this book to answer that question–there are two more books to go.

Though this book bothered me, it didn’t bother me as much or the same way as it did my brother (and perhaps that should bother me?). I suspect I’ve always had a bit more of a dark side. Wells has done his homework, and has created a fascinating character in John Cleaver; a bright, self-aware teenager with an inability to feel normal emotion. And he sticks to it, no matter how uncomfortable, even painful, it can get being inside John’s head. He doesn’t cheat to make it more bearable. Wells admits that there is one scene that writing left him freaked out for several days.  

I enjoyed the opportunity to study an alien mind from a safe distance. That’s one of the points of literature in the first place: to let you share in experiences you wouldn’t normally have the opportunity to. I don’t want to be a sociopath, but I don’t mind learning about how they think. I love suspense, and this book has plenty of it. I enjoyed the characters, and the fact that Wells seldom takes the easy way out with any of them.

It was also interesting reading this book as a writer. Dan Wells is one of the Writing Excuses podcasting team, and this book is referenced regularly, though there were few spoilers, fortunately. Now that I’ve finally been able to read the book I’ve been hearing about for months, I found it easy to hear Well’s voice in my head as read. He uses many of the same expressions as John Cleaver. (Though I did notice that while I heard Wells’ voice from time to time, the voice I heard for John Cleaver most often in my mind was that of Brandon Sanderson, his fellow podcaster.)

More applicable, however, is Well’s frequent recommendation on the podcasts that writers study poetry to help with their word choice, brevity, and evocative language. I can see that influence now in his writing. While he never crosses the line into “literary writing”, he does write in a fairly sparse-yet-descriptive style. He gets a lot of mileage out of his words. I found it an enjoyable aspect of his style, and one I wouldn’t mind emulating.

As I said, I enjoyed this book. I won’t let my kids read it, but I thought it was one of the better books I’ve read this year. It’s not an easy book, certainly. It was draining at times because of the tension, suspense, and dark places in which we walk. It invited me to notice my own dark places. But it was well-written, and a piece of work I can learn from. I’m not in a hurry to read the second book in the series, but I know I will. It’s only a matter of time before I’m ready to take a walk around in John Cleaver’s frightening mind again.

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