A hypnotic coming-of age set in a town that’s a little bit different
I was really looking forward to Joshua Gaylord’s ‘When We Were Animals’ (WWWA) as I was a gigantic fan of his literary zombie novel ‘Angels are the Reapers’ (RATR) from 2010 which all said and done is my favourite zombie novel of all time, and I’ve read a lot of them. Joshua wrote RATR under his pseudo name ‘Alden Bell’ and an earlier non-supernatural novel ‘Hummingbirds’ under his real name. So with this new novel, which isn’t necessarily supernatural, he seems to mix and match his real name and what I thought was his genre alias name. So this guy has serious style and WWWA has just been released in paperback in the UK.
For a day job Joshua has taught high school English in New York for many years and I really dig the idea of an English teacher creating really beautiful horror novels after he has graded his papers for ‘Catcher in the Rye’ or ‘To Kill a Mockingbird’ or whatever else he is teaching. Shirley Jackson most probably! A couple of years back I really enjoyed hearing Joshua talking about zombies in a very serious interview with an academic audience and we then became Facebook buddies and have chatted about RATR and other novels on occasions. I said to him: “Josh! How could you end it with….. SPOILER ALERT?” And he replied, “There was no other ending possible….” Sad, but totally, totally beautiful and I cried my eyes out. A good while back I was chatting on Facebook with the brilliant British horror writer Adam Nevill in passing about RATR and he summed it up perfectly: “There's not enough poetry in modern horror, Tony. But Alden Bell really lights a path in that book.” I couldn’t agree more with what Adam said, as I know many people who enjoyed RATA who wouldn’t normally read horror or go within a million miles of a zombie novel. The word ‘zombie’ is never actually used, and set a number of years after an undead apocalypse a highly self-sufficient teenage girl wanders across an empty, almost frontier like America. Teenage hero ‘Temple’ is such a brilliant and enduring character she wouldn’t have been out of place in a Cormac MCarthy novel. This novel is highly recommended and a great introduction to the word of Joshua Gaylord/Alden Bell.
But there are no zombies in WWWA, but there is the same type of lyrical poetry, there is beauty and this hypnotic coming-of-age tale had me hooked from beginning to end. It’s not strictly horror and like many great books is quite different to pigeon into any particular genre. It certainly was as original as RATR and was one of those reads that had a whiff of ‘YA’ about it, but to be honest I couldn’t decide 100% whether it was or not. AATR was the same, I thought it was an adult novel, but my teenage school book club adored it and I believe it may have been pitched at teens in the USA. It was certainly one of the best novels I’ve read in the last five or six years.
Before getting to the plot I was really pleased to see that WWWA has been nominated for the Shirley Jackson Award for Best Novel, 2015. This is certainly a big cheese award and I was over the moon for Joshua, as it very well deserved. So the plot: in a nutshell, in this small quiet Midwestern town, which is unremarkable save for one fact, when all teenagers reach a certain age, they run wild. They go nuts. They go bat-shit crazy. When I saw they ‘run wild’ I mean when they hit puberty (or there abouts) they ‘breach’. Something that only happens in this small town. Without giving too much away ‘breaching’ means that when the full-moon is out all the adults and doors lock their doors and batten down the hatches and the teenagers go mad. Sex, orgies, violence, killing and are unbelievably brutal to each other. But it is all forgotten when the next day breaks. In the early stages I thought they were werewolves, but it’s a strange rights-of-passage thing which hits every teen. Well, every teen except one….. And that’s what the book is about.
Some teens breach for longer than others. Often those who have the wildest breaches, only do it for a short period. Then the full-moon comes around and they no longer feel the need to run wild. And woe betide the parent who tries to stop their kid from breaching…. Years later everyone looks back on their own breaching with a certain nostalgia. “When I was a kid” sort of thing….
The book is narrated by a girl called Lumen, who tells her story (or is it a confession?) from years later. After she has left the town and has her own family, who know nothing of her past or her weird town. In looking back over her life we realise she refused to breach (was it a choice?) as she hit puberty late, however, something changes and she begins to investigate the history of her strange town and the mother she never knew.
This was another fantastic genre-bending read from Joshua Gaylord. Part thriller, horror and coming-of-age tale which should have wide appeal beyond the horror market as the author has the writing tools to stand tall with the very best writers of literary fiction out there. Like RATR it’s a very literary novel, very gothic in style, has limited action, with fantastic descriptions, and if you’re the type of reader that likes all the questions answered and all the boxes ticked, then I suppose you might find this novel a bit frustrating. Not me though, I liked the vagueness of it and maybe not all questions need answering. It was certainly a story that remained with me long after I had finished it and I’ve recommended it to lots of friends. It really is worth your attention and especially if you fancy comparing it to RATR. He may use two names, but the author writes equally wonderful with both.
Purchase a copy from Amzon.co.uk