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Review: The Dismembered by Jonathan Janz

Sometimes, a good, old-fashioned Gothic thriller is exactly what the doctor ordered. Many horror fans know this truth. There’s nothing quite so nostalgic as a dreary, gloomy castle in a stormy climate with a classic villain. Indeed, there’s a quaint comfort in the Gothic’s heroines and heroes, its terrible monsters, and its obsession with hidden secrets coming to light.

Jonathan Janz, the indie superstar known for such horror hits as Nightmare Girl and Exorcist Falls, understands this well. One could even say, too well. His newest novel, The Dismembered, is an exciting little pastiche that wears its classic DNA proudly on its sleeve.

The first clue lies in the writing. Janz writes his story from the point of view of the American writer, Arthur Pearce. The year is 1912. Our young American writer, recovering from a devastating divorce with a cheating spouse, finds himself adrift in ennui. All this changes when Sarah Coyle, a young noblewoman, is attacked on a train. Saving the young ingenue, Arthur receives a proposition from Sarah: help her save her younger sister, Violet, from the machinations of the sinister Count Dunning. Once our hero meets the Count, however, things quickly go from bad to worse.

This classic plot reads as astoundingly true to the era’s genre fiction, but Janz doesn’t stop there. His writing also captures the zeitgeist. Pearce’s narration perfectly encapsulates the voice of the era. The pacing and tension of the plot betrays Janz’s modern sensibilities, but the voice reminds me of M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood. Even a little bit of Henry James in a spookier version of Daisy Miller.

Nevertheless, the novel’s Gothic sensibilities are best captured in its description of the villain’s lair, Castle Magnus:

In every way Dunning’s castle was Altarbrook’s antithesis. Where Altarbrook boasted respectability and symmetry, Castle Magnus exuded chaos and angularity. Perched atop a sheer cliff, the structure resembled a clutch of stalagmites jutting from a craggy mountain plateau. The sooty stone facade and multitudinous spires engendered a sensation of vertigo, one that made me yearn to flee.

In this passage, the reader finds so many of Janz’s influences. The angular, gloomy castle looms supreme over many a Gothic story, yet one finds the tinge of weird fiction as well. Is not Pearce’s cry for symmetry a subtle glance into Lovecraft’s own obsession with Euclidean geometry in architecture? Perhaps, perhaps not.

Yet perhaps the strongest indicator of the novel’s gleeful blending of the classics lies in Count Dunning, the villain. Dunning is a true Frankenstein’s monster of a character. His personality carries plenty of Dracula, much of Dr. Frankenstein, a little of the good doctor’s monster, and even the predation of Anne Radcliffe’s most terrible foes. Dunning feels like a character that would have been adapted in some Hammer film of the mid-twentieth century. I can easily see him played by Peter Cushing or Christopher Lee.

As a fun throwback, The Dismembered works quite well. The plot never drags, and the atmosphere carries well. The goriest sections of the book make for a great pay-off. The characters are well-developed enough that you care for their fates as things get grimmer. Yet I can’t help feeling that Janz could have done even more with his characters.

For example, the novel’s female characters tend to fall into some nasty stereotypes. Two of the Coyle sisters, Sarah and Violet, spend the vast majority of the book quarreling over a man, Count Dunning. Lizzie’s past centers around her past sexual encounters with men. This flaw feels especially obvious considering the many Gothic throwbacks in recent years that elevate their female characters, like the excellent Dowry of Blood and Silvia Moreno-Garcia’s Mexican Gothic.

However, as it stands, The Dismembered remains a fun little romp into the genre conventions of yesteryear. If you’re looking for something nostalgic and spooky for your Halloween celebrations this year, I suggest giving this one a try. At the very least, the novel’s good enough to make me excited to dive into the rest of Janz’s work.