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The Smashed Man of Dread End by JW Ocker is the kind of book that makes other writers jealous. It’s a thing of beauty, like watching a perfect spiral sail downfield and arrive with utterly flawless precision, all while knowing your own passes are a tad wobbly and often come up short.
Characters to root for and admire; wonderfully realized setting; fine writing on every page.
And oh yeah. It’s one freaky read.
Ocker pulls off a rarity in modern horror. Rather than revive one more tired zombie or vampire or werewolf, he delivers a monster unlike any other: the Smashed Man, an oozing terror more effective than any ghoul or ghost I’ve come across in quite some time.
Noelle Wiley and her little sister, Lenore, have just moved to Totter Court, a whitebread cul-de-sac of safe, middle-class homes. Although the vandalized Dead End sign that now reads Dread End is a bit eerie. Weirder is the welcoming Noe gets from the neighborhood girls.
“Don’t go in the basement of your house at night.” She said it really fast, as if she had been holding it in for hours. “Your little sister either.” The girl nodded at Len, who had followed Noe outside and was peeking shyly around Noe’s leg at the new girl like she’d fallen in love with her.
“What?” asked Noe.
“Don’t go in the basement at night.” The girl turned around and ran back to the group, who immediately dispersed in different directions like they were a rack of pool balls.
“That’s ominous,” said Noe.
“Om-ee-nus,” repeated Len.
Does Noe go into the basement at night? This wouldn’t be a horror novel if she didn’t. What does she find?
Not that night. There’s nothing down in her basement except a washer and dryer and a large crack in the wall.
Noe’s next trip to the basement is another matter. Noe’s a sleepwalker, and she awakes to find herself in the basement, where the Smashed Man begins to ooze from the crack in the wall.
“She realized there was no sound. No slither or scrape of the thing as it slipped out of the wall, just a thick silence like there was no such thing as sound.
“The flat form oozing from the crack in the wall bent up to reveal a face. A horrible, grayish face. A face that looked abused. Wounded. Smashed. Like a truck had run over it. Bruised and ripped with raw muscle and skull showing through, but all of it no more than a fraction of an inch thick. It had oily black hair and unearthly violet irises that shimmered in the gloominess of the basement like it had LEDs for eyeballs.
“And it smiled.”
Remember the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? Christopher Llyod’s character is smashed under a paver. He turns out to be a toon, so even though he’s flat as a pancake he gets up and wobbles around. Think of this and you’re in the ballpark for the Smashed Man.
Noe flees, certain the monster will give chase. It doesn’t. In fact, Noe discovers that leaving the basement resets the Smashed Man. The next time she enters the basement, he is fully back in the wall and starts his slow escape once more.
Let’s be clear. A slowly oozing flat guy coming out of the wall that you can reset simply by walking back up the stairs shouldn’t really be that scary.
It’s a testament to Ocker’s skills that he is.
As Noe points out, every monster has rules. The Smashed Man resets when you leave the basement; adults can’t see him; he only comes out at night. But those rules don’t lessen how terrifying he is.
So stay out of the basement. Problem solved. Easy peasy.
Which is what the neighborhood girls do. There are cracks in the walls of all the basements in Dread End, and the Smashed Man seeps through every one.
But Noe can’t stay out of the basement. She’s a sleepwalker. And so is her sister. If either of them sleepwalk into the basement and remains there in their slumber long enough, the Smashed Man will make it all the way out of the wall. Free from his prison, no kid in Totter Court will be safe.
Like living in the shadow of an active volcano, the Smashed Man’s presence has caused psychological damage in all the girls in the neighborhood. Radiah resides sullenly in her attic, as far from her basement as possible. Crystal is riddled with anxiety from being homeschooled and spending each day in the basement schoolroom her mother has created. Ruthy is only six, and she spends much of her time cutting out ghoulish paper figurines shaped like the Smashed Man.
And then there’s Erica, who once lived in Noe’s house. The damage visited upon her is more than psychological. The Smashed Man got her, and now she lies in a coma in the hospital.
This loose confederation of shellshocked survivors reminds me of another group of women under siege: the housewives of Grady Hendrix’s The Southern Book Club’s Guide to Slaying Vampires. In Grady’s novel, the women’s husbands refuse to believe in the monster in their midst because they think their wives are just silly old women. In Ocker’s tale, no one believes the girls because they are just silly little children. Both novels explore the damage done to women when domestic horror goes unacknowledged and ignored.
And both demonstrate the resilience and strength women of all ages find banding together to fight and overcome those horrors.
The Smashed Man of Dread End is a damn fine novel. For my money, it earns shelf space not only with other middle-grade horrors but like Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book deserves acceptance on adult racks as well.
And Ocker, who has a new book out later this year (The Black Slide), is a writer of tremendous promise. Keep your eye out for his work. Trust me.