Horror Books: Rotters
Sixteen-year-old Joey Crouch used to be fairly happy. He and his mother enjoyed life in Chicago. He had a best friend. He played the trumpet. He wasn’t popular, but he wasn’t so unpopular as to be a target for abuse by those higher up the social ladder. All in all, life wasn’t bad. Then one day, everything changed. His mother dies, and Joey is uprooted from his life in Chicago and sent to live in rural Iowa with a father he’s never met.
Through a series of unfortunate circumstances, Joey rapidly becomes ‘that kid’—the butt of every joke, victimized (emotionally and physically) by teachers and students alike. His new home is no better. The house is a mess, and it reeks to high heaven. His father is largely absent, wandering in and out of the home at odd hours and after long intervals, leaving Joey to fend for himself. But that’s not the worst of it. Eventually, Joey becomes curious about his father’s unorthodox activities, and discovers, to his horror, that his father is a ‘digger’—one who robs the graves and coffins of the dearly departed.
Joey is initially disgusted, but his hunger for social contact, for some kind of family, leads him to seek acceptance from his father the only way he knows how: by joining him in his chosen profession.
Thus begins Joey’s sordid and grotesque adventures as a grave robber. His father teaches him all he knows, and Joey comes to find a certain confidence in his ability as a ‘digger.’ However, when they meet up with his father’s ‘colleagues’—particularly a deeply disturbed, odd looking man known as ‘Baby’—things get very dark very quickly and Joey’s struggle for social survival morphs into a struggle for physical survival. As Joey comes face to face with human depravity (including his own), he learns that the living can be far more rotten than any corpse.
Subjective Appeal: The Allure of the Grotesque
The subjective appeal of Rotters is rather limited, as it is something of an acquired taste. And rightfully so. Some, fascinated by the morbid or the macabre, may be attracted to this meditation on the fleeting nature of life. We are all just worm food waiting to happen, after all. Others may relish the social rebellion—the plundering of graves is a violation of the oldest societal norms, and the young adult thirst for self-determination, adventure, and independence may thrill to this ultimate disrespect of humanity and disregard for authority. Still others may enjoy the sheer horror of it. Dead bodies, putrid stenches, rotten flesh, dirty bones—on some level, we enjoy being grossed out, and the excavation, looting, and desecration of decomposed corpses certainly feeds into that mentality.
Kraus not only acknowledges this fascination with the grotesque, this tension between attraction and revulsion; he counts on it. This is no romanticized tale of the life of an outlaw—this is not an Indiana Jones-like quest for missing artifacts, and the protagonists do not explore dry and musty (but largely clean) graves from the distant past. Joey and his dad are up to their eyeballs in decaying human remains, rancid odors, and revolting bodily fluids. Over and over again, we are reminded that they can never really be rid of the smell—the stench of death (as a stand-in for conscience) follows them wherever they go.
Admittedly, Kraus is a capable writer. He tells the story well. The characters are complex and well-drawn, and the plot is interesting. Kraus is particularly adept at creating in his readers the desired emotions—when Joey is humiliated by bullies, we feel the hot flush of embarrassment. When he butts heads with his utterly unfit (and unfeeling) father, we share in his frustration. We share his rage at the injustice of his life, and we spiral downward with him as he struggles to maintain some semblance of control over his increasingly incredible circumstances. Credit must be given to Kraus for so effectively immersing his readers in this deeply uncomfortable story.
Then again, it is just that: an uncomfortable story. It gets dark very quickly and it stays dark for the duration of the book—dark and disturbing. Thus, despite the excellent writing, I suspect most readers would not enjoy this book. I know I didn’t. Fortunately, the subject matter itself will likely weed out many of those who would be most disgusted with this deliberately disgusting book, while those attracted to the promise of grotesquery implied in the premise will not be disappointed.
Developmental Value: Solidarity and Perspective
Honestly, the quest for objective value in a horror book like Rotters is something of a challenge. This is a dark book about awful people doing awful things—and protagonist Joey is no exception. Hope is all but absent and role models are few and far between. Still, in the teenage wasteland of high school, there is comfort in knowing that you are not alone in your suffering—we are all in this boat together, and we all suffer. Then, too, there is the fact that very few people will face circumstances quite as horrendous as Joey Crouch’s. Functionally orphaned, ostracized, abused, and alone, Joey endures real suffering, on an emotional, physical, and even spiritual level. Just as there is comfort in knowing that adolescence is hard for everyone, there is, I suppose, some comfort in the reminder that things could be so much worse.
Sadly, Rotters does not offer readers any help beyond the shallow comfort of commiseration. There are no lessons for coping with hardship, no advice for the struggling, no offer of hope for those tempted to hopelessness. Joey Crouch is far from a lesson in how to endure well the trials of life and adolescence—he participates in his father’s illegal (and revolting) activities, and his response to the bullies he encounters is essentially to bully them back even worse, exacting a cruel and quite unsettling revenge that even his tormenters might hesitate to employ. He even voluntarily joins forces with the unhinged (and maniacal) grave robber ‘Baby’, desecrating corpses with the intention of terrorizing the living. He lives a life completely outside the law—outside the rules of society, both formal and informal. And while he endures some horrific events in the course of his grave robbing adventures, he receives no real recompense for the wrongs he commits.
At the end of the day, this is an extremely well-written and unpleasant horror book, with no admirable characters, no real lesson, and not much in the way of substance or redeeming value. Given the darker nature of the story, I would be disinclined to recommend Rotters to younger readers—the book is billed as being appropriate for ages 14 and up, but I would not recommend it to anyone under 15 or 16. Then again, I don’t know that I would recommend it to anyone of any age.
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