Aaron Dries novel A Place for Sinners from Samhain Publishing is a real travelogue of horror. It starts with a child, Amity Collins, penned into a dark cave by feral dogs, helpless and static like the transistor radio that she carries around. The monsters never really leave after that; as much as the light never fully returns into the world of Amity, her brother Caleb or the people they meet. Sound is also stolen from her life after the gunshot to kill the dogs leaves Amity deaf.
We leapfrog into the present following the adult siblings as they plan an escape from their religiously zealous and overbearing mother. She’s a hoarder, a house full of yellowing newspapers, chipped bric-a-brac and broken lives. An Indonesian adventure awaits Amity and Caleb far from their tightknit Australian town and claustrophobic history.
Dries threads an assortment of outcasts and socially broken lives through this adventure. Robert Mann a New York copywriter with a life like a minefield used as a dancefloor by a herd of elephants. Matt, a German backpacker who attaches himself to the brother and sister. His relationship with Caleb becomes an invisible shard of glass, scratching at Amity and bleeding Caleb without either realizing. Then we have the most monstrous of characters. Sycamore is an English housewife with such a sadistic bent she makes the Whitechapel murders look like an episode of the Mickey Mouse Club.
But these characters aren’t coming from hell. They are all heading toward it in a rickety boat that drops them on a deserted island populated by savage monkeys.
One could read this book as an examination of Dissociative Identity Disorder. Each character, each location and each history feels like a eurythmic hymn that gradually drifts off key. I often questioned whether Amity ever left the cave. If the gunshot that deafened her actually killed her, or sent her into an even darker place where a cast of unsavoury and deeply flawed characters reside. Dries does hint at this in several aspects of the novel. A device he uses with a deft skill and unnerving storytelling.
That leads me to the quality of the writing here. Aaron Dries has that desired quality of weaving beautiful prose with raw and earthy language. His brutalism is pulled through the lines for the reader to observe, like an autopsy of the human condition while the patient still breathes.
The psychotic condition of Robert Mann with his veins full of bedbugs scratching and eating him alive. The stripped to the organs horror of Sycamore and her atavistic pursuit of death as the only real beauty, murder as the purest form of living. Matt with his ulterior motives and animalistic treatment of humans that echoes the savagery of the monkeys on the island. Each of these is treated with care and balance. So many writers could have tipped the scales, crayoned over the lines. But Dries keeps them all in check so when he does unleash them the effect is astonishing.
The author is never afraid to take a risk with his content or his treatment of characters either. He raises his flag from the very start and informs the reader not to get too comfortable. Don’t ever feel too relaxed or become too devoted to a character.
As much as Amity uses her own sign language to communicate throughout the book, Dries utilises his own dialectal of symbolism. It’s an intelligent novel. It’s also like the Rough Guide edition they never dared release; The Rough Guide to the Island of Horror. The reader can take this book at its simplest level as a good old fashioned travel horror, a monster island romp. But this is more than King Kong, the monkeys are smaller for one and far less sociable. It may need you to join the dots, dig deeper into the rain soaked soil to find the treasures beneath. But it’s worth it. Because this is a volcanic exploration of human nature and the thin line we tread between humanity and savagery. Dries dares to ask uncomfortable questions like, is civilisation an artifice and what happens if we all step over that pencil thin line?
This novel is a rose garden hidden beneath barbed wire. An excellent first read of this author for me and no doubt it will not be last.