Psychoville
by Christopher Fowler, horror (1996)
Warner, 5.99, ISBN 0-751-51664-3


I must admit suburban homes can be scary. I live in a higher upgraded - and more expensive - version of an apartment built by the Housing Development Board of Singapore. It's not a quiet waterfront condominium with a built-in solar roof like I would have preferred, of course. It's a squat, boring, white-walled apartment eighteen floors up the ground, and it is surprisingly ugly in its uniformity with other apartments everywhere in Singapore. Sometimes I feel like I'm losing my identity, living in a place that looks like everyone else's place. Worse, every neighbors look alike after a while. There's the same screaming children in my son's level as well as mine, the familiar old man that grumbles about everything... when after a hard day's work, sometimes I'm hard-pressed not to turn beserk, get a frying pan, and do a PG-rated Norman Bates on the first annoying person I meet.

Suburban living is scary.

Which is why I had a wonderful and nerve-rising time reading through this book. Christopher Fowler is a hip, cool, trendy writer that specializes not in horror but the really macabre. That's before he turns mediocre in colorless works like Soho Black and Disturbia. But Psychoville is really a superb - and gory - work that demonstrates what can happen when normal life goes all awry. And the really scary thing is that I love the two really twisted main characters. I really terrify myself sometimes.

Once upon a time in trendy Invicta Cross, a sort of aspiring Beverley Hills for posh English folks, there live two outcasts. Billy March's parents aren't rich or classy enough. His only friend April's mother is a single mother with psychological problems. These two have a hard time fitting in, as are their parents. Instead, their lives turn horribly nightmarish in a web of snobbery, cruelty, and malice from the other townsfolks. Anything goes missing - money, jewelery, anything - and the first person the cops go to is Billy. However, Billy is a quiet, intelligent boy who daydreams of a better life. April is a girl who is timid, shy, and compulsively neat to bring some semblance of order to her chaotic life. They are joined by Oliver, the undertaker's son, a not-too-intelligent boy that for the first time, spins his own daydreams thanks to Billy's influence. All things go wrong one night, forcing Billy's family to leave Invicta Cross in disgrace. April is raped on her first date and never recovers. Oliver, succumbing to family pressures, abandon these two to the wolves.

I really must say this part, which takes up half the book, is really awful to read. It's hideous, because the ordeals underwent by April and Billy are real, casually perpetuated by people who are too self-absorbed in their life of luxury to even know the extent of the damage they're wrecking on the lives of the less lucky. The date rape scene is mercifully brief, but the aftermath - and April's subsequent descend into mental chaos - is so painful to read that I have to remind myself, It's only a story. It's only a story.

Which explains why I'm clapping with glee when Billy and April return one fine day, years, years later, to wreck really gruesome, horrifying, and disturbing revenge on their tormentors.

"Jack" and "Polly Prentiss" are a good-looking couple new to Invicta Cross circa present day. No one knows that Jack is a former bomb defusement expert with a lethal knowledge of chemicals, warfare, and home-made bombs. He's just a muscular, good-looking man with money to throw around. His wife Polly is eccentric, waifishly beautiful, and speaks like an actress. She's long lost touch with reality, dosing herself liberally with antidepressants, and she is on the verge of insanity, but to the people of Invicta Cross, she's rich and hence, fits right in. She has the right to be eccentric.

Jack demonstrates the really nasty thing so one can do with a salad knife, a golf hammer, a dose of sodium fluoroacetate, and some easy to get kitchen utensils. If there's a book I will lock away from kiddies, it's this one. McGyver has nothing on Jack Prentiss in making home made bombs and lethal poisons from nice things you buy at the supermarkets. Polly, bizarre and talking nonsensically, commits murder with a nonchalance that is horrifying when you consider her usually amiable nature. She cajols a dying victim to sing along to the soundtrack of The Sound Of Music (Climb every mounta-aaa-aaa-aaain!) even as she serves the victim poisoned milk.

Now, I love Jack and Polly. Don't look at me like that - it's like me cheering on the lead characters of True Romance (he's a trigger-happy drug dealer, she's a prostitute), Go, and Pulp Fiction (let's not go there). I leave my moralities at the door.

Polly is especially a painful to read yet memorable character. She and Jack are soulmates in their shared pain and insanity. Their quiet moments are, believe it or not, touchingly tender despite their S&M tendencies. Jack will do anything to protect Polly from their plan of revenge, which is ironic considering that it is Polly who finally administers the coup de grace of the story. And Polly, a woman so torn by her past that she now lives out her life in movie scenes, most of the time she doesn't know what she is doing. Her only link to sanity is Jack. There's one scene that she murmurs to Jack about her dreams of they after this whole madness, where they have a nice big house in a place where the space is wide, and they have two twin little boys... only to end it with a whimpered "I know it is a dream. It lasted ten minutes, so it's a lovely dream." I can't help but to be touched. When Polly shows some signs of sanity, she reveals her vulnerability. She's still the scared little girl who was too ashamed and afraid of her vicious rape.

This is not a book for everyone, I admit. The revenge plans these two crazed folks carry out start out harmless, only to accelerate to an insane and murderous pitch chapters later. Mr Fowler spares no details - the murder scenes are all in their technicolor glory.

I should be disturbed. I should be writing to Warner, protesting such disgusting books being churned out for the edification of the public. I should, but I'm not going to. I like this book.

You can call the men with the straight jacket now.

Rating: 84


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