During the summer, I started Mr. Monster, Dan Wells’s sequel to I Am Not a Serial Killer. I read the first half of it in only one or two sessions. Then I put it down for months.
I didn’t put it down because it’s bad—to the contrary, it’s very good. I put it down because, for the first time that I remember, I was filled with such palpable dread that I didn’t want to find out what happened.
In most genres, this would be a failure. In a Psychological Horror, this is a remarkable success. An even larger success is that, when I finally worked up the nerve to pick it back up, I tore through it in one sitting.
I Am Not a Serial Killer is about John, a teenage sociopath, trying his best not to become a killer. When a killer comes to his small hometown, however, he realizes that he is the only one who can stop it. And to do so, he must break rules he put in place to keep himself—and those around him—safe.
Mr. Monster is all about fallout. What happens when he stops the serial killer terrorizing his town? What happens after he breaks his rules? Can he throw back up the walls he’d so relentlessly torn down? Or will he lose what few boundaries he has left, becoming a monster equal to the one he stopped?
The second book is even more compelling than the first. The author makes me empathize with someone who has no empathy, cheering him when he resists his darker impulses, and sitting in quiet terror when he gives in. Despite thinking and doing truly horrific things across the course of the novel, I never stop caring about what will happen to him, never stop rooting for him to do better. John is a complex, dynamic character, and feels real to me.
The supporting cast varies in just how much depth they are given, but almost all of them have thoughts and feelings all their own that John can only guess at, and develop in arcs separate from him. Nearly all the characters’ actions feel informed by what they want and need and from the moment they are in. Almost never do I feel the author’s hand at play.
Dan Wells has a sparse style of writing that makes it easy to overlook the level of skill he consistently applies. There were moments in the novel that made me reread in admiration of a clever turn of phrase, or shudder from deftly-woven foreshadowing. One line sows a seed that is never given more overt attention until it sprouts near the end of the book, making me feel crafty for recognizing its significance.
My only real criticism of the book is that the twist at the start of the third act cuts strings that were woven through the first half of the novel, renders developing storylines moot. In a way, it makes the end of the novel feel separate from the first half. I might have been reading a different book altogether, were it not for the main character’s steady arc. This is made worse by the fact that the twist feels lacking proper setup.
For a lesser writer, this would ruin the entire book. But even as I read that scene, I was absorbed in the tension and driven on by the characters. Dan Wells kept me hooked throughout one of the more jarring moments I’ve read in the last few years. All because, to put it frankly, he’s one heck of a writer.
Overall, Mr. Monster is a better book than the first in the series. It pushed my engagement with the characters and their lives further. But more than that, Mr. Monster gave me moments of dread and terror. And that’s all you can ask for when you pick up a Horror novel.