I’ve been following Mark Matthews work ever since I read his debut On the Lips of Children, a frightening story about a subterranean family that proves that our capabilities for violence are just as frightening as any monster or supernatural force. That’s one of the things I love about Matthews’ books is that they have a gritty and realistic feel to them, even the ones that contain supernatural elements. I also admire his willingness to tackle uncomfortable subject matter, which he has done quite a few times throughout his various books. That tradition carries over to his latest novella Body of Christ.
Body of Christ follows two young kids – Keagan and Faith- as they struggle to deal with two monumental losses in their lives. Faith witnesses her mother pass away in the hospital after a horrific car accident where her car had fallen into a ravine and left her unrecognizable and in a coma. Her father tells her that the doctors suggest they say their goodbyes because she is only being kept alive by machines. There is nothing that they can do and inform Faith and her father that she will never be the same. Faith’s father tries to explain that she is no longer aware, but Faith doesn’t want to accept that. Even though her body is unresponsive, Faith is convinced that her mother is alive, but trapped in her body. She believes her mom’s spirit and her will to live will cause her to wake up and prove the doctors wrong. She refuses to accept that her mother is dying and believes her mother’s faith is a testament to her spirit and will cause her to wake up and prove the doctors wrong. Faith prays for a miracle for her mother to wake up, which is when she begins to notice movement from her mother and then she hears her mother’s voice imploring her daughter to help her. Despite all of this, this is the last time Faith sees her mother.
Faith begins to transition through puberty after her mother’s death and she feels alone, so she clings to her mother’s memory of her first period for guidance. This leads to her hearing voices like she did when her mother died, only it isn’t her mother this time. She struggles to quiet the voices at first, which perpetually follow her around. It isn’t until she makes a desperate choice that she begins to find peace.
Faith watches Keagan from her house and is jealous of his ability to spend time with his parents. She is still grieving the loss of her mom and after her death, her father isolates himself and becomes a shell of his former self. While Faith is jealous of Keagan, she is unaware that he has a rough family life of his own. His mom is a fanatical Christian who forces Keagan to follow strict rules. She doesn’t let him celebrate Halloween or other holidays the same way his friends do because that would make them “fake Christians”. Keagan’s mom also has a vicious streak, constantly calling him a rotten sinner and saying his dad’s painful back injury is his punishment for being a fake Christian. Keagan’s father is in agonizing pain every day and no amount of pills can keep him from crying out in his sleep and groaning.
Keagan’s father hates that he is no longer the man Keagan remembers, the active dad that would take him for ice cream or play baseball. One fateful day leading up to his first Communion, his dad has a talk with him. He says he only married Keagan’s mom to protect him from her, but after living in agony due to his back pain, he’s now done living and tells him he is going to die. While they talk, Keagan’s father makes him promise to not have kids and to not accept his Communion. After he agrees, his father carries out his final plan and Keagan witnesses his father’s brutal death. Keagan manages to save pieces of his father and puts it in a bag in his closet. Not long after that tragic night, Keagan takes his first Communion. Still mourning the loss of his father, he takes the Ziploc bag containing his body parts with him. It’s with that first Communion wafer that Keagan develops a plan.
Everyone looks at Keagan differently after his dad’s death except Faith, who reaches out to comfort him since she knows the pain he is experiencing. As they begin to spend more time together, their lives start to intertwine. Both Faith and Keagan have their own dark secrets, and when those secrets finally come to light, Matthew’s Body of Christ races to a stunning finish that is unlike anything I have ever read.
One of the strengths of this novel is Matthews’ ability to capture intense emotion which makes for some great scenes. Many of them focus on the grief the characters feel while losing the people closest to them. The scenes where Faith is visiting her mother in the hospital are absolutely gut-wrenching and Matthews captures the grief that someone would feel in a realistic way. I also like how this sort of sets up the religious elements of the story because the loss of her mother makes Faith struggle with her own beliefs when she feels that her prayers are going unanswered. Then there are the scenes between Keagan and his father where he is brutally honest with his son and tells him that he is going to die that night. There is another scene that takes place between Keagan and his mother that is honestly one of the tensest and most horrific scenes I have read in a long time, partly because it is shockingly realistic. One promise I can make readers is that whether you love or hate Body of Christ, it will make you feel something. This is not a passive reading experience where you simply read the story and then move on to the next thing. Body of Christ elicits a visceral reaction and I still think about some of these scenes, well after finishing this novella.
Body of Christ is a transgressive piece of fiction, I was excited to see Matthews take such a big risk and it definitely paid off. There are some great moments of tension throughout. I’ll admit, this story may not be for everyone. Although I think that if you go into Body of Christ with an open mind, you will be rewarded with a rich, engaging story that deals with themes of loss and religion. This novella is not an easy read, as it has some truly unnerving moments, particularly toward the end. But just because it isn’t an easy read doesn’t mean it isn’t an addictive one. I read this in one sitting and trust me, once you pick it up, you’re not going to want to stop.
Body of Christ is an original work that expertly blends the horrors of real-life with fantastical moments of the supernatural. There are so many elements of this novella I could rattle off to exemplify its originality, but in order to avoid to avoid spoilers, I will keep it simple. Often times if you are reading a work of horror that deals with religion, the most common plot that pops up revolves around demons and exorcisms. I can’t fault authors for going that route; those stories are ripe with opportunities to craft terrifying scenes. What I appreciate about Body of Christ is that Matthews forges an entirely new path and crafts some bizarre and chilling scenes without a single demonic entity popping up. The things that Matthews conjures up have been done in horror fiction before, but the spin he puts on it is what sets them apart and helps make for one hell of a disturbing story.
Mark Matthews has long been one of my favorite independent authors and if you haven’t read any of his works, you are doing yourself a disservice. Even if Body of Christ doesn’t sound like your type of book, Matthews’ addiction-horror books like the Milk-Blood trilogy and his stellar Garden of Fiends anthology are essential additions to your library. That being said, I highly suggest stepping outside of your comfort zone and giving Body of Christ a read. Out of all the novellas I have read so far this year, this one sticks with me the most.