{Book Review} Clown in a Cornfield By Adam Cesare

HarperTeen presents Adam Cesare’s Clown in A Cornfield which is as close to perfect as a slasher novel can get. For a midwestern child of the 80s and 90s, there are very few things, outside of a giant bloodthirsty Great White Shark, that are scarier than cornfields and clowns. Don’t let the YA label fool you, Clown in a Cornfield is far from a kid’s book. In fact, the only thing that makes this YA is the teenage protagonist (sidenote: I would argue this isn’t Cesare’s YA debut, but nevermind that for now) this novel has the power to terrify the entire family, but for very different reasons. With this novel, Cesare is going to create a new generation of life-long horror fans.

The overall premise is simple and reads with such ease that it feels like watching a movie. It feels like a mashup that is equal parts I Know What You Did Last Summer, My Bloody Valentine, and All The Boys Love Mandy Lane. So it makes sense that Temple Hill Entertainment’s (The Hate U Give, Down a Dark Hall) film adaptation is already in the works. 

The novel opens with the accidental death of a teenage girl in a small town reservoir. One year later, after her mother passes away, Quinn, moves with her father, Dr. Maybrook, from Philly to the rural midwest. After the previous physician suddenly retired and left town, Dr. Maybrook became Kettle Springs’ official, and only, doctor. Despite the massive culture shock, Quinn and her father are excited about their chance at a fresh start.

On Quinn’s first day of school, she is removed from class along with several of the town’s local pranksters, who also happen to be some of the most popular kids in the school. Quinn’s not one to get into trouble, but she also has the sense to take this opportunity to make some friends. Prior to being removed from class, Mr. Vern, their frustrated science teacher, made it very clear that they were not welcome at this year’s Founder’s Day celebration. This of course all but guarantees they attend the celebration. To teenagers, nothing is more enticing than something they’ve been told they can’t have. 

This is where the story slows down, but it is also one of the strengths of the book. One of the criticisms of horror, especially YA, is the prevalence of flat, surface-level characters. Cesare takes his time to develop not only the characters but also the town’s checkered history as well. Cesare uses a lot of dialogue to fill in the backstory, especially with regards to the town mascot, Frendo. Frendo was once the face of the town’s prosperity, but now he only serves as a reminder of how quickly things change, no matter how hard people try to fight it. One thing that is crystal clear is that the corn syrup factory’s closure officially killed the town’s last hope of ever making Kettle Springs, Missouri great again. 

In addition to character development, as a former teacher and a life-long horror fan, Cesare has a solid understanding of the teenage psyche. Cesare understands that even good kids make bad choices. He also understands that lashing out or rebelling is often a cry for help. Cesare writes characters that act and sound like teenagers, as opposed to cliched adolescent caricatures. Cesare’s characters, like most teens, are consistently inconsistent. One minute they may help an old lady cross the street, the next they may record themselves committing a crime and share it on social media. Cesare also knows that some teenagers do lack depth and are very superficial. What was fun about this novel was seeing which characters developed throughout the novel and which characters lacked the depth to grow. 

Clown in a Cornfield is proudly embedded within the slasher subgenre. This means there is a sense of comfort as a reader because we know this means a high body count, the masked killer with superhuman strength, red herrings, and of course the big reveal at the end. The book is at its most amusing in the places Cesare broke away from the tropes.

For example, he understands that young people are not only post-Columbine but also 9/11. The United States has been at war for their entire lives, intruder drills have become routine, and videos of people being killed stream online 24-hours a day, seven days a week. Not to mention enduring a global pandemic. As a result, and unlike the slashers of old, when their massive party out in the middle of nowhere turns into a bloodbath, these teens do not waste any time in denial. Instead of hiding under a desk like they were taught in school, they do the more logical thing: whatever they need to do to survive. 

Cesare also tackles the divide in our country between rural versus urban, young versus old, and accepting progress versus clinging to the past. The adults in town refuse to admit their once sleepy town is now on life support. Blinded by rose tinted nostalgic glasses, they are determined to maintain their traditional way of life by any means necessary. So after the factory closed and their economy dried up, they needed something to assign the blame. Instead of blaming free-market capitalism or the erosion of American manufacturing, they put the blame on the loud music playing, social media addicted, and self-absorbed youth. This conflict only enhances the notion that in a slasher, everyone is a suspect. 

Adam Cesare was already an established name within the horror community, but Clown in a Cornfield is not only his best novel yet, but it may be the catapult that launches him onto the shortlist of writers that are the future of the horror genre. Clown in a Cornfield exceeded my high expectations and alongside Stephen Graham Jones’ The Only Good Indians, it was the summer release I was most excited to read. If you are a fan of fast-paced, funny, engaging, and layered horror novels with compelling characters complete with a badass-anti-final-girl-protagonist then you won’t want to miss Clown in a Cornfield when it’s released August 20, 2020. 

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