A few days ago I finished Tom Piccirilli’s 2000 novel The Deceased and it’s been a long time since I’ve had this many mixed feelings about a book. For the last year or so I’ve either liked, loved, or hated the stuff I’ve been reading.
This is a good thing. Because it meant the book elicited a multitude of emotions from me and I like that. I don’t always want to be a raving fanboy or a grumpy jerk. I want to be challenged and I want to be forced to question certain decisions the author is making.
Synopsis: Writer Jacob Maelstrom returns home to the site of his family’s brutal murder at the hands of his sister and enters into an ever-shifting nightmare world where the lines of reality and dreamscape never stop bleeding into one another.
What Piccirilli excels at in this book is imagery. Oftentimes while reading it, I felt immersed in the world that one might only see through a wet painting, glossy and oozing with colors. From melting faces to the cacophony of the muses and forest creatures, the prose gets inside your head in vivid technicolor.
Piccirilli doesn’t shy away from the taboo, either. The scenes where the dead Rachel and Joseph are terrorizing Lisa, while simultaneously getting off together on the experience really gets under the reader’s skin. Not only because Piccirilli’s prose is so engaging, but they also happen to be brother and sister–a fact that in the hands of a less skilled writer would come across as a gratuitous shock-tactic, but in this book makes sense given the Maelstrom family history.
Now, it might be just me, but you’d be hard-pressed to find an author that could take a possessed inanimate object and turn it into a terrifying instrument of chaos (the exception being Cody Goodfellow’s short story “Conseula Hates a Vacuum,” which if you haven’t read unfuck that NOW). Towards the end of the novel Joseph’s wheelchair, in an attempt to communicate with Lisa, goes bonkers and starts to destroy the house. I loved it and that’s why I’m mentioning it.
Now, I’ll be the first one to admit that I’m not the biggest fan of horror novels where the protagonist is themselves a horror writer. I’ve always felt that in a lot of ways by doing this the author is mainlining their life and routine into the book and it comes across as lazy–that’s not to say there aren’t good ones out there. Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow is a great example of when this works well. So, I was a bit turned off by this backdrop for Jacob Maelstrom going into the story.
The characters of Lisa and Katie seem underdeveloped. I found myself wondering what their purpose was in the narrative. Lisa’s pregnant with the baby of her boss (Jacob’s agent), but the unborn feels more like a prop to up the stakes for when everything goes down rather than a vital character trait.
In some ways I wish that Katie had been on her own, trapped in a giant house with the subject of her thesis who is unhinged and haunted by his dead family. They share interesting histories when it comes to bloodshed and I think that could have been used a lot more for them to become closer, but as it stands, when she tells Jacob, “I love you,” it feels unearned and phony.
Overall, I wanted to LOVE The Deceased, but I only came out liking it. There’s some fantastic passages in here and I love how the scenes drift in and out of reality (apparently a problem for a lot of other readers). Unfortunately, all the interesting complex characters are the dead ones and the living feel like cutouts. However, I can’t wait to start Piccirilli’s A Lower Deep!