The Bullies and Me (Harriet Savitz)

Harriet May Savitz | January 1991 | 107 pages
Harriet Savitz | January 1991 | 107 pages

There are some books that, no matter what happens, stay with you for a lifetime. Maybe it’s for a captivating storyline, or characters you deeply identified with. Maybe it’s the prose or the way the writer made you feel. Maybe it’s for purely sentimental and nostalgic reasons. And that rereading that book takes you back to a simpler time in your life. It is, in essence, something closely akin to your very own personal time machine. Video games do that for me. Movies. Music. And books. One book that has resonated with me throughout the years for all the reasons listed above is an obscure little Apple Scholastic Paperback (remember those from the early-mid ’90s?) by the name of The Bullies and Me. It’s a simple book, but it’s a damn good one. I recently reread it earlier this month for the first time in nearly 25 years. It has definitely stood the test of time. I cannot wait to pass this title down to my kids one day.

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The year was 1995. I was on the verge of graduating elementary school and I had the world at my fingertips. I was never the coolest kid, but I had a close circle of friends, I had a loving family for the most part and I was ready to tackle the treacherous waters that was junior high. Before graduation my best friend Nelson randomly handed me this book one day.

“Hey Steve, check this book out. I just finished it and it’s pretty good. Feel free to keep it, actually.”

“Oh, cool, man. Thanks. I’ll read it at some point.”

Nelson and I went on to graduate. It was off to middle school in the fall of 1995.

And then one day in January of 1996, my parents gave me the devastating news that we were moving. Not terribly far away, but enough to change life forever. A few days ago it was the 25th anniversary of that move. It blew my mind. Time flies. Hell, January is a wild month for me personally. RVGFanatic turned 14 years old on January 7. On January 17, I celebrated 15 years since I got back into the Super Nintendo. All of this feels like a lifetime ago. But I digress.

I did not transition to my new town nor my new middle school with flying colors. It took me at least a year to adjust and finally find my legs. I remember being so terribly lonely, missing my best bud Nelly and my old hometown. The one I grew up in and called home for over 10 years of my 12 year old life. And that’s when one day I spotted Nelson’s copy of The Bullies and Me just lying there in my closet. I remember thinking that this was the closest link to Nelson and so I took the book to school. I began to read it and it was scary how similar the main character Allan and I were. I felt the book was written specifically for me. It was exactly what I needed to read during that critical time of transition. The Bullies and Me exemplify how literature can change our lives for the better. Because of this book, I was able to move on with my life and make the most out of what I perceived, at the time, to be a less than ideal situation. Thank you Nelson, and thank you Harriet Savitz.

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The story opens with one of the book’s main set pieces, Silver Lake. This is where the birds and ducks call home. Tony and Pete love to scare them. As you might guess, they are the bullies in the story. But initially, they are “friends” with Allan.

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Unbelievable, I remember thinking, as I read this for the first time after moving in early 1996. I moved in the middle of 7th grade, while Allan moved right before 6th grade. Hey, close enough! Immediately, I felt a kinship with the guy. My man!

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Allan’s best friend back in his old hometown of Mapletown is David. David in my mind immediately became Nelson. For many mornings in 1996, I too had an ache in my stomach. I knew exactly how Allan felt.

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Grandmom plays an important role in this story. She too is having a difficult time adjusting, but for different reasons. Her husband passed away and similar to Allan, she is grieving her loss and “stuck in the past” as well.

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This was basically me for the first half of 1996. 25 years ago now. Jesus Christ!

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Oh man, another passage that I recall totally hitting me in the feels. I kept thinking no one in my whole 7th grade class understood how great it was to live in my old hometown.

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The first two sentences above have always stuck with me. I just love how those sentences take me back to all those glorious spring and summer childhood days that seemed to stretch on forever. In fact, here’s how much of an influence this book has made on me: I’ve copied those exact two sentences over the years!

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See the second paragraph in the picture above. Sound familiar? I don’t mean to copy but those are two of my favorite sentences I’ve ever read in a book.

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One day, while hanging out with Tony and Pete at Silver Lake, Allan finds himself in a bit of a tight spot. Tony and Pete start throwing rocks at the birds. Allan doesn’t want to, but Tony calls him out. Hesitantly, Allan begins to throw rocks too. But he aims to miss while the boys try to go for the kill. It isn’t long before one of the rocks hits one of the birds. Allan isn’t sure if it was his rock or Tony’s or Pete’s that struck the bird, but he is instantly remorseful. The last sentence above is particularly haunting. “All the way home I wondered which stone, and was I the one who threw it.” Simple yet so powerful in conveying how important it is to say NO when pressured to do something you know is wrong or that you don’t wish to do.

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It’s funny how the things we try to hide have a way of coming back to us. Allan finds this out firsthand when Grandmom brings up the topic of the snowbirds. As always, Grandmom is wise. I love how realistic these characters are. The way they speak and interact with one another makes them feel like they could be any family in any neighborhood. Hell, maybe even your very own.

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Throughout the book David and Allan talk on the phone. These parts were great because it felt a lot like Nelson and me speaking over the phone.

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We’re soon introduced to Alexander, or Flute. Flute plays in the school band. Tony and Pete love to rag on “The Bandies” as they call them, and Allan is left in an awkward position. He twists the truth and denies his slowly budding friendship with Flute. Again, like a lot of 11 year old boys would do in Allan’s shoes.

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Back at home we learn Grandmom used to be a librarian and owns a shit ton of books. The ironic thing is now I have a shit ton of books, too. I suppose I’ve gone from being Allan to being Grandmom… :P

How can I say no to badass covers like this?
How can I say no to badass covers like this?

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I love Grandmom’s response to Allan’s question, “Are you cold?” The woman simply answers, lost in her books and reminiscing, “My memories keep me warm.” The rest of the scene plays out as awkwardly as it would in real life. If I were Allan, I wouldn’t know what to say either, except to eventually find a way to say bye and take my leave.

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Issues continue to crop up at home, and not just for Allan. His mom and Grandmom have a little argument, and Allan’s mom laments the fact that if only Grandpop were still around then things would be a whole lot better for all.

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Meanwhile, David and Allan have planned an epic sleepover. Horror movies and video games galore. It was going to be a glorious weekend. Unfortunately, David calls the day of to report that he’s terribly ill. Allan suggests maybe David could visit him tomorrow, but David knows he won’t recover by then. What else could go wrong?

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I love how straight to the point and real the dad’s question is. “Are you sorry we moved here?” I can’t tell you how many times I wanted my own dad to ask me that. But we never were very good at talking like this. He went to work, made the money to pay the bills, put food on our table and clothes on our backs. I must have read this specific passage a thousand times… and imagined my own dad and me having this conversation. It always ended the same way, too… with my dad saying he thought he was doing the right thing for all of us. Somehow, as strange as it may seem, that always brought me a little bit of extra comfort.

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I just love Allan. He has such great heart and character, even if at times he does succumb to peer pressure. The last line here is very touching. I know he would rather lose every model car in his precious collection than ever hurt Snowbird one bit.

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Once again, Tony is being a prick to the ducks and birds at Silver Lake. But this time, Allan stands up to Tony because he knows that standing by idly is just as bad as if HE himself were the one throwing the stones.

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But Tony is the kind of guy to forget that you stood up to him. So the next day it’s as if nothing ever happened at Silver Lake. And once more, Allan finds himself living a double life of sorts. The book perfectly depicts the hardship (relatively speaking) of not knowing for sure who to eat with at lunch, and how we often place high value in how others perceive us. There seems to be a big part in many of us to uphold a certain image, even if it doesn’t project who we really are on the inside. Thankfully, as we grow up, things like this become a little easier to handle as we learn to not give a fuck. Or at least, not nearly as much as when we were in our formative years!

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Later that weekend, unbeknownst to his parents, Allan decides to take the bus to make the 90 minute trek over to his old hometown. This is one of my favorite parts of the book. I am not ashamed to admit that I lived vicariously through Allan, and his old stomping grounds became mine.

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Oh how life imitates art. Little did I know reading this back in 1996 that 10 years later, in 2006 I would visit my childhood home with the same exact feelings. Hell, I even went back inside for the first time in 10 years! At the time my parents were renting our old house to some tenants. I wasn’t close with them but they knew me, so the lady let me in to use the restroom and reminisce. That night (January 26, 2006) marked 10 years since I’d moved. I’d stopped by the local Game Crazy at my childhood Hollywood Video just down the ol’ block to pick up a few Super Nintendo games prior to coming. It felt as if I was going back home to play SNES games with Nelson. It was one of those weird and magical nights… the ones that go on to be fondly remembered forever.

Heading back to the old stomping grounds
Heading back to the old stomping grounds
10 years to the day since I moved... I had to return
10 years to the day since I moved… I had to return
Lotsa memories...
Lotsa memories…
I'll never forget the drive home that night
I’ll never forget the drive home that night
I used to walk here ALL the time as a kid
I used to walk here ALL the time as a kid
From across the street. Damn glorious times
From across the street. Damn glorious times

And you want to know the craziest “life comes full circle” thing of it all? Back in September of 2020, my wife and I moved into that same exact childhood home. My dad gave the tenants from 1996 the heads-up, they moved out in July and for the whole month of August we renovated the old place. It cost me $60,000 — but to get a house “for free” and not just any house but MY OLD HOUSE… that’s priceless. Crazy how life works out sometimes, eh?

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Back at the ranch, Allan’s trip down memory lane hits a snag and goes slightly awry. He tries to surprise visit David, but of course David is not home. Not only that, but he is out kicking it with Jimmy Burns. Allan can’t help but feel disappointed. You feel him going from the highest of highs at the beginning of his odyssey… to the lowest of lows within a single page. Tough shit, kid.

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Back at school, Allan once again finds himself in the throes of cafeteria conundrum. Harriet Savitz perfectly conveys the immense pressure of the middle school lunchroom. It can be as savage as a jaguar-infested jungle or shark-infested waters. OK, not really, but when you’re 12 or so, it can sure seem that way sometimes. BTW, another great description by Savitz in the last paragraph above. Really paints a vivid picture, pardon the pun!

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Another phone call attempt to his best friend David that ends in futility and bitter disappointment. I bet ‘cha David’s with that prick, Jimmy Burns. What a bitch.

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As stated earlier, Allan is such a likable and relatable character. He’s not perfect; he makes his share of mistakes but he has a good heart. This example above helps to solidify that. He could have gone with the model car — which he wanted so badly to add to his collection — but instead he went for the bear because Beth had failed at winning it previously. Good guy Allan. A sweet and selfless moment indeed.

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The 3 pictures above display BY FAR my favorite part of The Bullies and Me. When I first read this 25 years ago in 1996, it helped to bring clarity and light to my own similar situation. I read it a thousand times to let Grandmom’s epiphany sink in even further. I love how she changes and realizes that she can’t spend the rest of her life stuck in the attic looking at old things. How she had to make a decision whether to spend the time she has left looking back in the past, or to move forward. That last line is intensely introspective, and powerful: “While I watched Grandmom stack the books, one pile for the library, one pile for her, I wondered if I was doing the same thing, looking back too much and not moving forward.”

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We all have watershed moments in our lives. The day our braces come off. The day we graduate from college and enter the working force. The day we decide to be partners with someone for the rest of our lives. Following that “come to Jesus” talk with Grandmom, Allan experiences another watershed moment. Earlier in the story Tony visits, sees Allan’s old teddy bear and beats the poor thing up. But when Flute visits, he just gets it. And that’s when Allan gets it, too. People like Flute and Beth are his real friends. They’re good people and they care for him just like how true friends ought. Unlike Tony and his lackey, Pete. So fuck those guys. And fuck Jimmy Burns as well.

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Now hurling toward the climax, Flute and Allan find Tony and Pete throwing rocks at the ducks and birds. Those assholes. Flute and Allan don’t need to utter a single word, they know what’s up. They know what’s about to go down…

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Allan tussles with Tony and at last bests the bully. Before the bullies leave the scene of the crime, Tony declares a harrowing threat: “What ‘cha gonna do, sit here with Flute and guard the ducks all day?” Allan hates to admit the truth but realizes that Tony’s right. Maybe Snowbird, Evelyn, Big Al and all the others can no longer be safe at Silver Lake. Shit. What CAN he do??

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BOO-YAH! That’s what he can do. Actually, it’s Grandmom who helps to make this happen. After speaking with Councilperson Roberts (or the mayor, anyhow), there are now signs posted at Silver Lake to help keep the creatures safe. Take that, Tony — ya fucking bastard!

;)
;)

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Things wrap up nicely. The creatures of Silver Lake are now safe and Allan no longer has to worry about them or the bullies. It also looks like Allan will finally get that epic sleepover weekend with David after all, and this time with Flute included. Allan grows up quite a bit over these 107 pages. He comes to realize the true meaning of friendship, stands up for what he believes is right even in the face of danger, and learns to make the most out of his present situation. All lessons that anyone can absorb and be all the better for it. It is a perfect and satisfactory conclusion. Like a lovely bowtie on a well wrapped Christmas gift!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

My Amazon review from 20+ years ago!
My Amazon review from 20+ years ago!

It blows my mind that it’s been 25 years since I moved. It blows my mind even further that my wife and I are now living in my old childhood home. It’s crazy that RVGFanatic has been around in cyberspace for 14 years now. Was it really 15 years ago that I got back into all things Super Nintendo? How time flies. And speaking of anniversaries, The Bullies and Me quietly celebrated 30 years earlier this month. I read it recently again and it’s held up well. Its lessons and messages still stand the test of time. It’s one of my all-time favorite books, not just for sentimental reasons. In a brief 107 pages, Harriet Savitz wrote a masterpiece for any kid who has ever had to endure the hardship of moving. And how, no matter how bleak at times that things may seem, we always have the power to make our lives as positive and happy as we deem it to be.

5Stars

Boy’s Life (Robert R. McCammon)

Robert R. McCammon | April 28, 1992 | 536 pages
Robert R. McCammon | April 28, 1992 | 578 pages

Over the past year, since getting back into reading, I’ve heard a lot of great things about Boy’s Life. McCammon was well known for his horror novels, but it really wasn’t until Boy’s Life that he reached new heights of reverence. Boy’s Life has elements of horror, to be sure, but it’s much more than just that. There’s a big mystery behind the core of this story, and although that mystery isn’t always the main focus, McCammon takes you on this wild ride of an 11 year old boy who comes of age in the south in the mid 1960s. It is also a powerful tale of a father and son who bear personal witness to a heinous crime and have to navigate life with all of that trauma weighing them down.

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I absolutely love that back cover. The praises, the summary… it all meshes and makes a strong declaration to the reader: READ ME!

What a gorgeous stepback art cover!
What a gorgeous stepback art cover!

MCCAMMON CANON

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After finishing Boy’s Life on April 2, 2020, I went on a “bit” of a McCammon kick. A month later, I was lucky enough to come across a lot of 11 Robert R. McCammon books for just $39.99. I’ve read one since and can’t wait to eventually read the rest. McCammon is a writer’s writer; he writes in a way that is lyrical and puts you right there at the scene of the crime. I’m a huge fan of his writing!

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This is my collection of 15 Robert R. McCammon books. Most of them fall under the horror genre. I’ve heard some amazing things about Swan Song, a tome that spans nearly 1,000 pages long. It is said to be a super epic tale about the end of the world, similar to Stephen King’s The Stand (which I am currently reading — what with COVID-19 and all), but I hear Swan Song is that much more superior.

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Look at all that amazing art work. The titles, the font, the colors… everything is just so gorgeous and striking. They sure as hell don’t make covers like this anymore! His earlier works are said to be weaker than his later entries, as McCammon grew as a writer with each passing book. But I digress. Back to Boy’s Life

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Boy’s Life opts for the first person narrative, and when done right, I really prefer this form of storytelling. Nothing puts you in the shoes and the heart of the main character quite like seeing and hearing things from their perspective. I like how Cory reflects on his younger life, as he rapidly approaches his 40th birthday. It is very reminiscent of Fred Savage’s character, Kevin Arnold, looking back on his formative years from the seminal ’80s TV show The Wonder Years. Being a huge Wonder Years fan, right away McCammon had me sold. Kevin Arnold living in a supernatural world? I’m *SO* there. Take my money, McCammon!

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McCammon’s prose is full of these rich, beautiful word pictures. He makes the reader see beyond the text and into the amazing world he has crafted. Often times, I stop after a certain passage and just have to read it twice. The writing has a timeless quality to it that pulls you in.

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At 578 pages long, Boy’s Life did admittedly drag slightly for me in a few places, but for the most part I was enthralled by the characters and curious about the mystery that wraps itself around the story. When McCammon nails a passage, man, does he ever stick the landing! For example, the excerpt you see above is perhaps my favorite from the book. It is just so haunting… so nostalgic… so full of kinetic energy that you can almost feel it pulsating off the page like fierce firecrackers spouting off in a barrel. “We pedaled on, four buddies with the wind at our backs and all roads leading to the future.” Powerful shit! Good shit!

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I don’t want to spoil this beautiful story for those who haven’t read it, but I will reiterate that it really isn’t a horror novel. Sure, it has got some spooky and supernatural elements to it, but it’s really more about a boy coming of age in the mid 1960s, and his looking back on those formative years that shaped him into the man he would become. There is a definite nostalgic quality to the writing and storytelling. It may be dauntingly overlong to some, but I encourage you to give it a shot if anything in this review resonated with you in the least. It is truly a defining piece of work and often cited as McCammon’s very finest.

BOY’S LOVE

The praise for this book is seemingly endless
The praise for this book is seemingly endless
I'm so glad I read it in 2020!
The effusive shower of adoration continues

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This is the one I remember most, though. I remember when Boy’s Life popped on my radar. As per usual, the first thing I did was visit Goodreads to see the overall consensus. Now I don’t always base my feelings on what strangers think, but I think it’s a fun bar that can be factored in when deciding whether I want to buy a book or not. And I just remember seeing the insane amount of 5 star reviews for Boy’s Life. And how there were barely any 1 or 2 star reviews. No book is ever perfect, and most books will have its fair share of supporters as well as detractors (some far more than others), but Boy’s Life averaged a whopping 4.36 rating as rated by more than 25,000 readers. That blew my mind, and I knew right away it was a book I had to read in 2020. It was also Char’s highlighted review that inspired me to buy a copy that very day.

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Perfectly stated, Char. Indeed.

CLOSING THOUGHTS

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McCammon does an excellent job of plopping you into the shoes of 11 year old Cory Mackenson smack dab in the middle of Zephyr circa 1964. The small sleepy town of Zephyr feels like a real breathing place. Themes of racism, bullying, injustice, social inequity and standing up for what you believe in rings loud and proud throughout the pages of Boy’s Life. It’s not perfect but there are many moments where I finished a reading session with one word ringing loud in my mind: “wow.” The story gets really heartbreaking at times and I love the ending where it fast forwards to the year 1991 and we get to see present day Cory Mackenson returning to his childhood town. That part filled me with so much nostalgia in spite of the fact that I am not Cory or never been to his hometown of Zephyr. It’s simply a testament to McCammon’s immense skill of making you feel like you know Cory and his town like the back of your own real life childhood hometown. Also love the father-son relationship in this story. Highly recommended for fans of coming-of-age stories, with a hint of the supernatural.

4Stars

Cannibals (Guy N. Smith)

Guy N. Smith | December 1986 | 186 pages
Guy N. Smith | December 1986 | 208 pages

Last summer I began my journey into the sordid and macabre world of vintage horror fiction. Browsing eBay late one night, I happened to come across an auction for a book called CANNIBALS. After Googling Guy N. Smith, I discovered that he was a rather popular English writer of pulp horror fiction. In other words, if you enjoy trashy and wildly graphic horror stories, Guy N. Smith is your guy (sorry). Guy is most well known for his infamous Crabs franchise, of which he wrote no less than EIGHT books about killer crabs. I knew then that I had to buy Cannibals. Put it on my watch list and a few days later, placed my bid at the last possible second and won the sucker. The excitement level was palpable — I couldn’t wait to read my first adult horror book, something long overdue. Did Guy deliver? Let’s delve in…

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Cannibals won’t win any awards for originality, but the plot is right up my alley. Of the many different horror sub-genres, I’ve always been a sucker for grotesque inbred creatures attacking poor unwitting fools. I love how the back of the book has the same killer art as the front cover. That hideous creature is just so gruesome. What is up with those webbed claws and that third eye?! Definitely not something you would want to run into late at night, or any other time of the day! I also love the simple plot and how you know there will be an uprising of the monsters. Much blood shed is promised, and much is spilled and splattered through the book’s 208 pages. It is a wild, bloody ride!

Guy N. Smith
Guy N. Smith

WE’RE NOT IN KANSAS ANYMORE…

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Wrong Turn opened in theaters on May 30, 2003. I scored two tickets for a special pre-screening the night before, and invited a good college buddy of mine along. It was a packed house! Lots of girls screaming in the audience and lots of funny comments like “OH HELL NO! GIRL YOU BETTER WATCH YO BACK!” made for a very fun evening of slasher movie madness. Cannibals is kind of like Wrong Turn and The Hills Have Eyes… but on steroids.

The Hills Have Eyes, a cult classic
The Hills Have Eyes, a 1977 cult classic

ABANDON HOPE ALL YE WHO ENTER HERE

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Most horror books open with an excerpt from later in the book. It’s usually a nasty bit that the author wants to highlight right from jump street. The one in Cannibals is no exception; it is a particularly abominable excerpt…

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The first page introduces us to Doug Geddis, an elderly member of the hamlet known as Invercurie. We find out he’s in his late 50s and that he’s seen through shit. He is clearly apprehensive, and praying that whatever was lurking outside were villagers rather than… well, you know. Right away Guy N. Smith paints a desolate scene. One that feels hopeless, isolated from civilization and ripe for some inbred monster mayhem.

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It isn’t long before readers find Doug Geddis is up to no good. Greedy to make a buck, he’s willing to risk the lives of careless holidaymakers. What a great word, by the way. You gotta love English writers; they use certain words and phrases American writers don’t. Little details like that can make a book feel “exotic” and extra fun to read. I also love his wife’s accent and how Guy writes it as how you would hear her speak it: “Douglas, ye can nae bring outsiders to Invercurie, ye can nae risk them seeing…” and then ol’ Douglas the mad lad telling her to shut up. Or think it, anyhow. The page ends on this chilling line: “Death would always stalk the night hours in Invercurie.” Ooh, spooky! Even the word “Invercurie” seems to curdle the blood… it just sounds like the sort of place where really bad and awful things happen… the type of place that deserves to be blotted off the map and blown to bits. A region where no God of any kind exists…

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Soon we get some foolhardy holidaymakers crashing the scene. They’re needed for the body count, y’know. Once again we get another chilling line in italics: Invercurie ceases to be a place of beauty after dark. Ye mustna go up into the mountains. Creepy stuff!

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Be ready for a lot of words written in italics. I suppose it was Guy’s way of being extra dramatic and look-at-me. Whatever the odd case may be, I find it works. My eyes were always drawn to the italics, and I knew anything in italics usually meant some sort of vulgar language or graphic description. Guy’s vivid description of the beasts is second to none. He really excels at grossing you out and making you feel super glad you’re anywhere but Invercurie!

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When shit hits the fan, it really hits the fan. This is like nothing I’ve ever read from R.L. Stine, that’s for sure! Oh no, people die here and die in very gruesome ways. It is not for the faint of heart. Cannibals is balls to the walls horror and depravity personified. Being my first adult horror book read, I could not believe how vile and despicable it was. Each reading session concluded with me wanting to thoroughly scrub myself clean!

CLOSING THOUGHTS

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Guy N. Smith is a savage. The story moves along at a brisk pace, there is plenty of monster mayhem and it never drags. This isn’t one of those lame horror stories where it’s 80% buildup and then finally the monsters appear during the final 20%. These godforsaken creatures show up early and often. At first it’s a bunch of slaughtering up in their dank decrepit cave. But before things come to a fiery conclusion, the creatures shamble out of their cave to wreck havoc and smash shit up down in the village. This was no lame first book in a series where it sets up events for the middle book. This is a standalone where Guy unleashed all hell and said, “Here, have some more hell! And take another heaping of hell after that!” I enjoyed the hell out of it, pun intended. It’s way better than any Hills Have Eyes or Wrong Turn movie. Sometimes, it’s a lot more frightening imagining something with your mind than it is to see with your eyes. Cannibals is damn bloody fun, full of wanton destruction and chaos. I was sad when it finally ended, but also relieved. I needed a shower badly! This is just one of those books… it’s completely vile and foul… and I loved every friggin’ second of it :P

5Stars