By SHAWN MACOMBER
“What a wonderful thing is the mail, capable of conveying across continents a warm human hand-clasp.”
So goes an oft-quoted line by a sentimentalist whose name has been lost to time. But what if the “warm human hand” reaching out across the stamped divide proved to be neither lover nor trusted friend nor estranged family member seeking rapprochement? What if the sender was in fact an on-the-loose serial killer, possessed by an eerily sophisticated bloodlust, who has chosen to conscript dozens of seemingly random addressees into an epic game of cat-and-mouse intertwined with murder, butchery and unorthodox jigsaw-puzzle assembly? What if you received not a “warm human hand-clasp” but simply a cold human hand? Or arm. Or leg. Or nose. Or heart. Would you drop that dime? Smash those 9-1-1 buttons as fast as your trembling digits would allow? Or might you hesitate, wondering whether a gift that clearly entailed so much effort and risk should be more carefully pondered…or even acted upon?
Such is the wild, unsettling premise of the fantastically imaginative, shrewdly constructed, enlivening new novel PIECES (Dark Ink). Written by Rebecca Rowland—the fast-rising dark-fiction talent who deftly wed hardcore horror and true, affecting pathos in last year’s Kane Hodder- and Tom Savini-endorsed short story collection THE HORRORS HIDING IN PLAIN SIGHT—and razor-sharp, nimble scribe Michael Aloisi, Hodder’s co-author on his autobiography UNMASKED (both authors pictured above), this fast-paced, multilayered tome is rooted in modern life, but also feels in many ways a throwback. The intertwining of Aloisi and Rowland’s styles as they flesh out a dizzying array of satellite storylines is reminiscent of the trailblazing genre authors of the 1950s—think an amalgamation of the sumptuous derangement of Robert Bloch, the unpredictability of Rod Serling and the bloody-knuckle grittiness of Jim Thompson.
But perhaps we’re getting a bit ahead of ourselves…
The novel begins with a young woman being stalked and murdered by a man whose latent psychopathic tendencies have obviously been dragged into conscious action by his powerlessness in every other aspect of his life. Alas, this is only the beginning of his victim’s indignities, as we learn when a retiring investigative reporter receives a letter from the killer that lays out the ensuing game. It reads, in part:
A girl has gone missing. Truth be told, she is not really missing: I know exactly where she is, but her family does not. You see, not long ago I took her and killed her, very humanely, I think. Since her death, I have been rather busy, cutting her body up into precise pieces and ever so carefully packing them up in boxes to be delivered by our great postal service to thirty people across the country. These thirty were chosen entirely at random: aren’t they lucky?…
If all thirty pieces are found within a month, the poor girl’s family can bury their daughter, and then, and only then, I will turn myself in. If ALL of the pieces are not found, well, as the nursery rhyme goes: All the King’s horses and All the King’s men, will force me to start all over again…
Right on schedule, people begin reporting macabre deliveries. “[A]n upper arm was delivered to a widowed father of four in Portland, Oregon,” a serial-killer-hyping blog within the novel reports, for example, “and a thigh to a recently retired public schoolteacher in Omaha, Nebraska.” But PIECES is not their story. It is not even primarily the tale of the killer, cops, reporter and oddball independent web sleuths and digital voyeurs jockeying for position—although that wraparound is wonderfully rendered and obviously essential. No, at its cold, butcher-paper-encased heart, PIECES is about the 12 individuals who do not report the packages: the cantankerous octogenarian widower, the apocalyptic street preacher, the ex-reality-show star in existential despair, the seething, self-devaluing “other woman” in a workplace romance, the filicidal operator of a salt flats tour company, the hypochondriac college student already teetering on the brink of madness, and others who see their unexpected personal delivery as a sign, a call to action. Accordingly, they act out in shocking—and shockingly inventive—ways that will horrify, titillate, astonish and dazzle. It’s a tour de force of grotesquerie, both physical and psychological. Oh, and PIECES also features one of the most complex and nuanced literary portraits of the mind of a self-justifying serial killer in recent memory.
It’s tough to be more specific without taking the heat off Aloisi and Rowland’s gut-punches. Suffice it to say, if you’re not looking to take a few literary hits to the solar plexus, PIECES ain’t the book for you. It’s a potent, sometimes fun, sometimes extremely nasty deep dive into the dark heart of humanity—which, like Herodotus’ couriers, “neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night” appears able to slow.