Squeal

Squeal

In my FAQ, I state that I only give out praise where I think that it is deserved. I’m not one of those reviewers who give out nothing but glowing praise because I believe that is unfair to you as a reader. Why do I bring that up now? Well, today’s novel was given to me by its author in exchange for a fair review and I note that it’s gained a measure of positive feedback on Amazon and Goodreads, yet it unfortunately was not the novel for me. Let me tell you why.

Squeal was first published in 2014 and is the debut novel of Enoch St. John. It is a horror thriller which focuses on a group of six teenagers who are forced to survive in a remote jungle while being tirelessly pursued by a ferocious beast.

The WISH program is designed to be a way to rehabilitate troubled teenagers. Seven teens – Joe, David, Narine, Bluto, Ralph, Luz and Melanie – are taken into the Hoh Rainforest by an experienced guide in order to learn social skills in the hope that they will soon see the error of their ways. The program has had nothing but success in the past and its coordinator, Jake Huntsman, is convinced that this time will be no different, even though this group contains a violent thug, an arsonist and a pathological liar.

Yet what Jake does not know is that a horrible threat lurks deep within the forest. A razorback boar – huge, feral and bred for savagery – has gotten loose and has a taste for human blood. It is not long until the teenagers find themselves fighting for survival against the beast. However, the hog is not necessarily the most dangerous thing in the woods. Even if they manage to escape the boar, can they ever escape the monsters within?

In the beginning, Squeal quickly captured my attention. The opening chapter is very fast paced and has the feel of a bad horror movie. Two adults go walking in the forest only to meet with some barely seen monstrosity that tears them limb from limb. While it’s difficult to call this kind of opening good, it is at least enjoyable. I am huge lover of low-budget horror films and when I saw the echoes of this in the opening chapter I was immediately encouraged to read on.

However, this novel was not what I was expecting and this time I don’t mean that in a positive way. It quickly became apparent to me that the author was trying to be far too clever with his story. While the first third of the novel played out like a monster movie, the author rapidly began to introduce other themes to his novel. Nature versus nurture, Church versus State, natural selection and the ethics of designer breeding, all were briefly referenced and then quickly brushed aside. The story was not really about any of these things, they were simply touched upon in passing before the author moved onto more important issues.

An example of this can be found in Eric, the well-meaning Christian supervisor who has tagged along with the group. Eric is specifically told by Jake that he is not to force religion upon the teenagers but decides that it is his duty to do so anyway. Although he has their best intentions at heart, it is clear that he is clueless. His faith offers them little comfort as the teenagers known that it won’t protect them against the hog, and so it is obvious to the reader that he only deludes himself. While this could have been an interesting sub-plot, it only lasts for a couple of chapters before it is pushed aside and never mentioned again. Due to this, it felt like more of a distraction than anything else.

It was about this point in the plot that the story slowed to a crawl. The hog virtually disappeared for the middle third of the novel in order to make way for a character study of the six who survive to that point. Although the back stories of the teenagers are interesting, they are presented as solid exposition – internal dialogues or conversations with others. These clumsy passages of text just causes the story to completely stop moving for about seventy pages as each character in turn tells their tale. As a general rule, I prefer text to show rather than tell. I want to learn about a character from their actions, not be told all of the nuances of their personality through paragraphs of expository text.

As for the characters, well…they are a bit of a mixed bag. I can’t really go into that much detail here as describing the attributes of the cast would spoil some of the revelations of the second half of the story but I can say that some were more believable that others. While I completely bought some of the characters as being young, troubled teens (Bluto’s actions in particular are very understandable when you learn his back story), some of them talk and act like miniature adults. I’m pretty sure that no thirteen year old boy in the world is as capable and responsible as Joe – the boy who somehow manages to fight off a bear and already has plans about settling down and having kids.

I also object towards the portrayal of the female characters in the novel. While the male offenders had committed a wide variety of crimes, all the girls’ sins boiled down to sex. There was one who had gotten pregnant underage, one who slept with men for material gain and one who worked at a strip club until she realised that she was expected to give her patrons “special favours”. While the male characters were arsonists and thieves and bruisers, none of them had gotten themselves in trouble by sleeping around. The fact that this was what every female character in the novel had done really, really set my teeth on edge. I know I’m probably reading too much into this but it almost felt as though the message here was that sex and prostitution were girlish transgressions – that bad girls were ones who used their body for pleasure and as a way to earn money. And this annoyed me very much.

My final point of contention was the ending of the novel. I believe that the final twist of the story will really divide readers and can see from other reviews that some people found this to be very clever. Personally, I felt that it ultimately was a little disappointing. While I had an inkling that the story was going to pull this sort of twist, there really wasn’t anything to sign post it in the novel and so it seemed to come out of left field. It also entirely took place over the final three pages of the book, making it incredibly sudden. It almost felt as though the story just ended in mid-flow with no real sense of finality. We don’t even discover what the ultimate fate of one of the survivors is as they just disappear into the forest just before the last reveal. To each their own but for me, this was very disappointing.

So, to summarize, Squeal started out as a fun horror novel but this petered out quickly to make way for lengthy character studies. Because of this, the pacing of the novel fluctuated drastically between breakneck and deathly slow, while all character information was given as lengthy chapters of exposition between pig attacks. Characters in the novel were also a mixed bag with some being far more realistic than others and the ultimate twist was lackluster and came far too close to the end of the story. While this could have been a decent horror story, it ultimately came across as being too ambitious and tried to shoehorn far too many themes into a short page count.

Squeal can be purchased as a Paperback and eBook on Amazon.co.uk

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© Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews, 2016. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Kim Dyer and Arkham Reviews with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

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