We Are Monsters by Brian Kirk
Book Review by Rich Duncan
I’ve decided that the feature “Throwback to the Future” Shane started early on in Ink Heist’s future needed a revival. There are so many excellent books that we were fortunate enough to read and review that are getting new editions and we still want to help spread the word about them. This feature is kind of a fun way to do just that. I decided to pull this review from The Horror Bookshelf vault and share my original thoughts about Brian Kirk’s We Are Monsters. I have read back through the review and it still rings true. There’s a reason it was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in a First Novel. It’s an imaginative story that introduces readers to Kirk’s brand of reality-warping fiction that is pushing horror in an exciting direction. I knew as soon as I read it that I was going to be a fan of Kirk’s work for life and this novel claimed my “Favorite Novel of the Year” the year it was released. I’m so excited Flame Tree is bringing this novel back for readers to enjoy and I hope you’ve already purchased your copy of this exhilarating novel.
I have heard nothing but great things about Brian Kirk’s We Are Monsters from other bloggers and some of my favorite authors, so the hype around this book reached monumental proportions for me. It took me awhile to finally read We Are Monsters, but I can safely say it was definitely worth the wait.
Kirk’s We Are Monsters is a psychological horror story that takes place in the Sugar Hill mental asylum led by two brilliant but very different psychiatrists, Dr. Eli Alpert and Dr. Alex Drexler. Dr. Alpert is plagued by self-doubt and haunted by the demons of his past, events that shape how he interacts with his patients. While he is not opposed to using modern medicines to treat his patients, Dr. Alpert tries to use more humanistic and less invasive approaches whenever possible and treating his patients with dignity and respect. His holistic approach makes him unpopular with the board despite his sterling reputation for helping patients reach high levels of recovery. They see him as stubborn and refusing to adapt to modern times and would rather see him utilize medications more in treatments. Dr. Drexler is more willing to utilize medication in the treatment of his patients. He has been testing an experimental drug in secret without his mentor and boss Dr. Eli Alpert’s knowledge. Dr. Drexler hopes that his drug will be able to cure his patients that are battling mental illness, but his medicine has not been performing up to his standards as of late as he is on his fifth trial patient and his backers in Philax Pharmaceuticals are quickly losing patience. Although he views Dr. Alpert as a mentor, they are often at odds with how to treat patients, which adds tension to their relationship.
The arrival of a new patient known as the “Apocalypse Killer” plunges Sugar Hill into a state of chaos and violence that brings these tensions to the surface. The board of Sugar Hill feels Dr. Alpert is losing control of the hospital, and turn to Dr. Drexler for help. They know all about his secret project and force him to use it on a patient through implied blackmail in an attempt to gain positive press. However, Dr. Drexler’s cure has horrifying side effects that will change the lives of everyone at Sugar Hill forever.
We Are Monsters has a very interesting structure and it is one that readers will either love or hate. Personally, I loved it. A majority of the novel is spent introducing readers to the cast of characters that help give this story life. We learn about their history, their desires, the darkness that haunts them and both major and minor characters are brought to life in an incredibly vivid way. Kirk’s characters are complex and it is in many of these scenes that We Are Monsters truly shines. A great example of this is Dr. Drexler. He comes off initially as a man driven by greed and as being cold considering his early interactions with his wife. However, flashbacks about his relationship with his parents and his schizophrenic brother Jerry show that while he may have faults, he isn’t that easily categorized.
These chapters of character building set up the events that unfold throughout the course of the novel and despite being loaded with flashbacks and switching from various view points, Kirk’s attention to detail and lyrical prose keep the reader hooked and it is never confusing. As a horror fan, I love getting to the parts where things go off the rails and whatever creepy monster, creature or event is finally unveiled in all of its terrifying glory. However, in the case of We Are Monsters, I was just as intrigued by the back story and the events that led to these scenes. I loved this approach because when elements of the supernatural are finally unleashed in the back half of the novel, their impact is that much more visceral.
I don’t want to get too much into the details of what exactly the effects are of Alex’s drug are because it would ruin the discovery for new readers and that journey is part of what makes We Are Monsters such a great read. I will say that I thought the way Kirk introduces the more supernatural elements of the novel was brilliant and even with the reality-warping events that take place, the explanation for them was fairly plausible.
I started reading Kirk’s debut with the thought that “Oh, I’ll just read a few chapters to get started”. That plan of attack quickly went out the window as I found myself hooked on We Are Monsters from the very first page. Any time I had to put the book down, I couldn’t wait until I was able to once again immerse myself in the world that Kirk created. I am glad I was able to read We Are Monsters before the end of the year because not only is this one of the most impressive horror debuts I have ever read, I am confident in placing We Are Monsters firmly in the number one spot for the best horror novel of 2015. I was absolutely blown away by the emotional resonance of the novel and the stunning quality of Kirk’s work. One thing is for certain, whether Kirk continues to write exclusively horror or branches out into other genres, I will be first in line to read his works. Regardless of what types of book you like to read, We Are Monsters is a book that belongs on your bookshelf.