Super creepy cover. Photo courtesy of tor.com

This skinny horror novel fascinates me. It’s a creepy, thrilling work that wastes no time and does not let the pace lag. The Lamb will Slaughter the Lion by Margaret Killjoy earns the unique distinction of being the only novel I’ve read that merits the adjective “punk rock” because Californium keeps getting leap-frogged in my reading queue. However, this brief little novel about anarchist punks certainly holds its own, because it corrals the horror back away from the grotesque and back into the realm of ideas.

Our narrator, a traveller named Danielle, gets dropped off in the middle of an abandoned town called Freedom, Iowa, that recently became an anarchist commune. She meets a blood-colored deer with three antlers, casually eating the heart out of a rabbit, as she wanders into town. Danielle came for some news about her recently deceased friend, Clay. She stays after she sees the red deer murder one of the townsfolk. That creepy three-antlered deer is named Uliksi and he’s a demon summoned to kill the “predators” of town – authority figures and bullies – which includes those brought him on in. Danielle stays to figure how to send Uliksi back where he came from before he kills everyone in Freedom, Iowa.

Freedom, Iowa, provides a fascinating backdrop. It lends a cast full of diverse voices to the story, who bicker and fight over the smallest details, but compromise enough to make things work. Freedom hovers between utopia and dystopia, which is refreshing for a town so far off mainstream America’s beaten path. The novel spares little space for political diatribes of any stripe from the mouths of the characters themselves, and instead it focuses on the horror.

The murders committed by Uliksi (and other characters) may not be for squeamish readers. The deer monster’s scenes splash across the page with graphic prose. However, they occur with little enough frequency that fear itself, rather than carnage, fuels the characters’ machinations. The masterfully thick tension leaves room for the reader to ponder the abstract questions that the characters don’t voice at a leisurely pace.

At times, unfortunately, the characters express themselves too little. Danielle resembles the classic gunslinger of the Old West, but the less desirable traits she inherited express themselves most dominantly. Like Shane, she’s a tough fighter with a past that we never hear about but unfortunately, we also hear little distinction. She makes an excellent narrator, but a detached one. We don’t learn much of why she travels or became an anarchist or where she’s been before now. Her mutual attraction to a woman named Brynn (never truly acted upon) feels less like a relationship than a dream. We do watch Danielle build friendships with the other characters and transform from a drifter to becoming a real member of a community, but the novel’s closing scene feels almost silly. After a confrontation with police, Danielle and four of the surviving characters decide to roam the country hunting demons, and then they bring their hands together in a circle, as if they had they just won their middle school basketball playoffs – at a booth in a Denny’s no less! It’s a blindingly light moment of childishness in an otherwise heady novel which heretofore delivered comic relief in dry quips.

Despite the ending, this book provides a chilling read for an afternoon. The setting feels natural and textured. The atmosphere remains thick with tension. The pace remains fast and steady up until the very end. I only complain that I didn’t have more to read.

Four out of five stars. Recommend to fans of the movie Green Room.

Page count: 125. Yup, it’s a short one.

Favorite quote: “It’s almost like you can’t summon otherworldly beings into existence, let them loose on your enemies, and set up a culture of worship around them without people getting all crazy.”

Want to read more by Margaret Killjoy? Check out: http://birdsbeforethestorm.net/