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Mar 11

I Am Not a Serial Killer (2010)

Serial killers have captured our imaginations for centuries. Some have even proposed that stories of mythical creatures such as werewolves arose out of efforts to explain mysterious strings of murders. Such gruesome interest has motivated the publication of countless books, not to mention the production of countless movies (for example, Demme’s Oscar-winning The Silence of the Lambs, 1991).

I must confess: the ubiquitous serial killer literature piques my interest. However, I don’t have too much patience for the sensationalist fare written by crime-chasing journalists; I prefer to go to the source. Some of the most informative books on serial killing by serial killers include the philosophical The Gates of Janus (2001) by Ian Brady, and the confessional Panzram: A Journal of Murder (1970) by Carl Panzram. Of note is Jason Moss’ autobiographical The Last Victim (1999), which chronicles his attempts to interview notorious serial killers for his undergraduate thesis. I’m sure it goes without saying: making one’s way through each of these books is a disturbing experience, both viscerally and intellectually.

Thus, the more sensitive among us may be forgiven for indulging in less realistic, overblown depictions of serial killers, since their exaggerated details allow some detachment. For example, based on a series of books by Jeff Lindsay and adapted for television by James Manos, Jr., Dexter (2006 – Present) manages to make serial killing an almost respectable trade. This well-regarded series follows the seasonal adventures of a man attempting to harness his homicidal impulses to improve society.

Contrary to Brady and Panzram’s harrowingly factual accounts of their gruesome deeds, Dexter takes many, many artistic liberties. In fact, the criminal psychologists among its fans cannot help but cringe at least once an episode: think of the psychodynamic explorations of the protagonist’s motives, or his apparent lack of regard for his victims’ actual risk of reoffending. Still, Dexter’s universe is downright realistic compared to the one inhabited by John Wayne Cleaver, the hero within first-time author Dan Wells’ I Am Not a Serial Killer (2010).

Have you ever wondered what would happen if a teenager with aspirations of becoming a serial killer were to face-off against a supernatural monster? Yeah, I hadn’t either. Yet, this is the question Wells poses, and answers, in his delightfully twisted book, the first of a three-part series.

John Wayne Cleaver would be your typical small-town teenager, if it were not for his undying passion for serial killers. Now, this may seem a tad unusual, but not necessarily alarming. The real problem is: John is resisting his own impulses to kill, serially. Have I mentioned that his deathly passions are compounded by the fact that he helps his mother prepare bodies for display in the mortuary below their house? When his hometown is plagued by a string of murders, he gets involved, naturally; after all, who better to track down and kill a serial killer than a (budding) serial killer himself? Alas, John’s purely theoretical knowledge of killing is no match for his very first chosen victim, whose practiced killing abilities appear to be, for lack of a better expression, out of this world.

As you can probably tell, I Am Not a Serial Killer is a ridiculous book based on an even more ridiculous premise. Yet, it works. And it works well. To be sure, it is a truly kitschy, pop-fiction type of book. But Wells seems to know this and runs with it, interspersing his otherwise outlandish storyline with genuine bits of drama and tension when needed. This self-awareness of sorts effectively raises the book above pulp literature into the “legitimate” realm of fiction. I Am Not a Serial Killer would make for a terrific graphic-novel. In fact, if it is ever adapted into a film, I believe its only chance of surviving the transfer from page to screen would be if the director treated the source-material as if it were a graphic-novel, by not taking John’s story too seriously and instead harnessing its pulp quality (much in the same way del Toro and McTeigue did with their excellent adaptations of Hellboy (2004) and V for Vendetta (2006), respectively).

Since its publication, I Am Not a Serial Killer has given rise to two sequels, and the first one, Mr. Monster (2010), is a worthy successor. In it, John’s hometown is once again assaulted with serial murders. Knowing more than he lets on about the initial spree, he attempts to help the police find the new culprit. As he continues to struggle with his homicidal impulses, John must also learn to cope with another variety of impulses: his attraction to love-interest Brooke. While plagued with a few too many distracting typos, the continuing story of John Wayne Cleaver remains engaging. The concluding installment, I Don’t Want to Kill You, will hit bookshelves in the spring of 2011. With Mr. Monster ending on a promising cliffhanger, I look forward to reading Wells’ next entry into the decidedly unique Serial Killer Thriller/Supernatural Fantasy genre.

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