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March 15, 2018 BOOKLIST
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Grave Robbing for Beginners
The anxiety that can come with writing a second novel is such a clear, well-documented phenomenon that it seems to deserve a term all its own. (Is there a single German word for the concept?) Literary history is filled with anecdotes of authors, from J. D. Salinger to J. K. Rowling, who struggled through writer’s block in the wake of their successful first novels. For Booklist Associate Editor Daniel Kraus, whose YA debut, The Monster Variations, was released in 2009, the trick to defying second-book paralysis was an unapologetically high reach and a characteristically vigorous work ethic.
“I did not start out with humble goals,” he says about writing Rotters, which will be published by Delacorte this month. “I set out to write the best horror novel of the year. Whether or not I succeeded doesn’t matter. The point is, I was thinking big-big-big and consciously tried to do something risky and ambitious. So I went whole hog with planning, working off of huge outlines, suboutlines, time lines, and character arcs to keep the plot in check, because my instinct was always to go further, weirder, wilder, and, occasionally, totally off the rails.”
Those “off the rails” ambitious instincts have earned the book advance raves from well-known fellow authors, including Scott Westerfeld, who said, “Rotters is grueling, demented, and so crammed with noxious awesomeness that I had to read it twice.” The plot follows 16-year-old Joey Crouch from Chicago, after his mother’s sudden death, to Iowa, where he meets his father, Harnett, for the first time. Known locally as “the Garbage Man,” the shockingly dismissive Harnett leaves Joey to fend for himself in a remote cabin steeped in a powerful stench, the source of which becomes clear when Joey learns Harnett’s true profession: grave robbing not garbage collecting.
Gradually, Joey begins an apprenticeship with Harnett, and Kraus’ graveyard scenes are packed with visceral and cultural details drawn from extensive research. “I read a waist-high stack of books,” he says. “A third was about the history of grave robbing, a third was about burial rituals throughout history, and another third explained the properties of decomposition. This last segment was pretty awful to read about, actually, but it was the most important because I didn’t want to just pretend that caskets wouldn’t be a stew of melting body parts. They would, and Joey would have to react to that.”
These vivid specifics give the novel the immediate power of a nightmare, but the unforgettable relationship between Joey and Harnett forms the novel’s archetypal core. As Joey becomes more entrenched in the complicated, violent family dynamics of Harnett’s shocking world, Kraus deftly layers the story with moments of surprising tenderness and levity between Joey and Harnett.
Kraus works in more wry humor and unexpected twists as he chronicles Joey’s parallel worlds: school, where he is a pariah and is subjected to astonishing cruelty from both students and faculty, and among the “diggers,” where he is increasingly viewed as a prodigy. “It just made good literary sense that Joey, who was the outcast in one universe, would find himself with the in-crowd, so to speak, of the other universe,” he says. “And the qualities that fail him in one world become what saves him in another.”
With such an original, nuanced plot, how does Kraus answer the inevitable question, “What is your book about?” “I call it a horror novel, but it’s about family,” he says. “The key ingredient of horror is that it is horrifying. So right there you cut out 98 percent of the books that use horror tropes like vampires and werewolves—pretty much the entire paranormal fantasy genre. Horror is not the same as action, and gore is entirely beside the point. A good horror novel should unsettle you; it should make you a little nervous to turn the page, a little uncertain that you fully trust the author to do the right or moral thing. Serious horror in YA literature is virtually nonexistent. I’m hoping Rick Yancey’s Monstrumologist series—and maybe Rotters—can help counter that.”
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