A Swollen Red Sun, by Matthew McBride *****

A shudder went through me as I pressed the five star rating, but it’s true: this is among the very best of its genre. Think of Deliverance; think of The Shawshank Redemption on steroids. No…picture it on crank.

A Swollen Red Sun is set in the middle of the hills and “hollers” in Missouri, a long, long way from a real city, a miserable, impoverished place where some folks’ goal is just to find a nice, normal person to smoke crank with instead of all these crazies. (I am avoiding the direct quotation because I read a galley and the rules don’t allow me to use them, but the figurative language and many other well-turned passages here make it really really tempting.) All told, this horrific account of a small community that has rotted from the inside out will make you think long and hard about whether growing up out in a rural area will somehow keep your kids isolated and protected from all the drugs, crime, and gangs that you know big cities hold.

At least in those cities, there are wholesome choices to be made as well, such as museums, theaters, and video arcades. And at least in those cities, there will be someone to hear you scream.

In my own digital shelves, I labeled this grim but brilliant work as “crime fiction”, but that doesn’t really cut it (oh, if you’ll excuse the expression). It’s more like a horror story minus the supernatural elements. McBride stirs up plenty of horror without needing to summon spirits from the great beyond. His are right here on earth, and they do a fine job of giving the reader a case of the heebie-jeebies all by themselves.

Yet, curiously, this novel has just enough moments of relief, however momentary, to keep it from crossing my “ick” threshold. You know what I mean, right? Once in awhile I start reading a book that is so unrelentingly horrifying, contains deeds so nightmarish that I think, “I don’t want to spend my time with something like this,” and then walk around with a sour stomach for a week over what I have already read. I thought this one might go there, but it didn’t.

I have a friend who likes Patricia Cornwell just fine, but there are certain other writers that she’s told me she’ll take a pass on. When I finish a book by Stephen King, I don’t send it her way, and likewise, both Jan Burke and the non-Sherlock thrillers by Laurie B. King caused her to say, “It’s too much.” And for my friend, this story would also, I guarantee, be too much. Let that be your litmus test.

So my advice for you is this. If you like a fast-moving, original, complex thriller with plenty of skeletons in plenty of closets metaphorically, I promise this hardscrabble tale will hold your attention to the very end. If your nerve-endings are too tender for horror tales, or if you have recently had someone close to you die and you aren’t really over it, you may want to set this title aside, at least for now.

I would be amazed if there are no awards headed this author’s direction. It’s a powerhouse of a story, and there’s really nothing else like it.

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