Cannonball Read IV: Johnny Gruesome by Gregory Lamberson
(Here thar be spoilers, me hearties. Though if you read this review and are still tempted to read the book, I've clearly done it wrong.)
You may have noticed in the course of the hundreds of reviews I've done over the past few years that there have been very few books to which I've had a strong negative reaction. Mostly I can find SOMETHING likable about each story. If a story has something going for it -- interesting plot, relateable characters, gripping language--I am willing to overlook a lot. I can suspend my disbelief if I think it might be worth it. I can even appreciate things that are bad, as long as they are bad with aplomb. (Hence my Nicolas Cage obsession, obviously.) Even things that I don't particularly like, I mostly feel pretty "meh" about. I don't get worked up into Lewis Black-style rage.
Johnny Gruesome is the rare exception to that rule.
Eric is a senior in high school, and his best friend is Johnny Grissom. They have been best friends since elementary school, even though Evan is more traditional and Johnny is a bit of a rebel and trouble-maker (He likes heavy metal music and has LONG HAIR!) One night, Eric and Johnny are out with Johnny's girlfriend Karen and their friend Gary, and there's a car accident. Johnny gets a little crazy, and Gary kills him, despite Eric's somewhat pathetic efforts to the contrary. The three teenagers decide to make it look like an accident, so they push Johnny and his car into the freezing river. Then he comes back and starts killing EVERYONE!
This is the basis of the plot. There are some minor subplots that go nowhere, but for the most part it's just Johnny killing people he doesn't like. And Eric doping around not knowing what's going on for 90% of the book.
Let's look at some reasons this book is bad:
1. Plot: Most of the main characters are in no danger most of the way through. They're barely even threatened for the first half. Johnny instead spends some time changing his clothes and hanging out before heading out to kill a bunch of characters we've perhaps seen once. Johnny kills the local priest who apparently maybe molested him. He kills some of the guys on the wrestling team who were douchey to him when he was alive. He kills everyone who works at the funeral home, as he felt they violated him somehow while preparing him for his funeral. He sexually assaults his home room teacher. He murders Eric's girlfriend, whom he liked when he was alive. He kills Karen and Gary. And then he tries to kill Eric. Luckily, Eric manages to escape with the help of the home room teacher and her husband the "acting" police chief (a big deal is made about how he's not really the chief, but it's one of those subplots that goes nowhere). Then he traps Johnny in the river because he read on the internet that ghosts can't get out of flowing water. Seriously. That is the plot. Johnny spends the majority of his time in his room at his house being pissed off, going out occasionally to kill people and get moisturizer to keep his skin from all rotting off (I AM NOT KIDDING).
2. The writing is bad. This book is written like it's a YA novel, except the dialogue, drug use, sexual situations, and graphic violence make it totally inappropriate for children. It's not a stylistic choice, as far as I can tell. I think the author is just kind of dumb. I mean, he's happy to describe a woman having her head pulled open with a crowbar, but expressing any true emotional impact or interesting extraneous detail is apparently beyond him. Actually, the only time he even makes any real attempt at description is when he's going for a gross out--whether it's stuffing the local rich jerk's decapitated head in a deflated basketball, the aforementioned crowbar assault, sodomizing the priest, or Johnny trying to kiss the homeroom teacher with his rotting tongue. Perhaps if he'd put even a smidge of that energy into creating a passable environment or believable dialogue or subtlety of emotion he might have ended up with a better book.
3. The characters were poorly fleshed out. Their motivations didn't make sense, and sometimes were directly contradictory. Before death, Johnny was a rebel, but a good-hearted one. He was tough but loyal to his friend, difficult at school but not mean-spirited. Then he suddenly becomes evil. I mean, I suppose it's because he was killed, but I just didn't buy the about-face in personality. There was no conflict in him. As a reader, I couldn't wrap my head around the transformation, and the author did nothing to help. Eric is merely dull and useless. He wanders through the story suffering generalized anxiety, pondering at the spree of horrific murders. Eventually he confides in the teacher, who insists he go to the police. Then later he decides to go ALONE out to the icy river to confront the murderous wraith...which is how he ends up almost drowning in an ice coated river. The women in the story are even worse. One is a junkie, one might as well be named "Doomed Romantic Interest", and one is both a hysterical victim and also such a dope that she nearly shoots Eric while trying to rescue him. The minor characters conform to their particular stereotypes--arrogant jocks, asshole rich jock, sad alcoholic dad, half-witted former athlete, creepy funeral home family, sleazy drug dealer--without adding anything at all new, different, or interesting.
Clearly, this book wanted to be Stephen King's Christine. The difference is that Christine has SUBTEXT. Christine, at its heart, is about the destructive effect that addiction can have on relationships. This book at its heart is a direct-to-DVD slasher film starring a former porn start and some 80s sitcom actor who just got out of "Celebrity Rehab."
This book was goddamn stupid. Every single facet of it was poorly planned and poorly executed. Frankly, I find it INSULTING to my intelligence. It gives me a pain in the middle of my forehead, like any moment blood is going to start shooting out my nose. If any of you still feel the need to read this abomination after what I've said about it here...well...I'm not sure we can be friends anymore.
For more of Siege's reviews, check out her blog, The Caustic Critic.
This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.
(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)