Tamer Animals by Justin M. Woodward
Publisher: simple bicycle publishing | Release Date: January 1, 2019 | Pages: 213
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Tamer Animals will teach you that bad things can happen to anyone. You could be planning a camping trip with your buddies only to find yourself lost in the middle of the woods being haunted by something called the Goatman. You could try to do the right thing but have your guts ripped out or face down a group of psycho backwoods hicks. If you are a character in Justin Woodward’s novel, you better be ready to have something bad happen to you, because he has no problem dumping you in the fire after you get out of the frying pan.
On the last day of school, four friends plan a week long camping trip to get away from their troubles at home. Crazy step-dads, jerky cousins, the pressures of dealing with a brother that was sexually assaulted, and a chance to get away from the judgmental eyes of parents sound like the perfect excuse to go get high in the woods. But more importantly, the campground is next to a haunted covered bridge. Of course, right before they make it to their campsite they have a run-in with a freaky gas station attendant, which then leads them to witnessing a semi-truck crash, and soon after discover a stowaway. It’s not a lie to say that Woodward wastes no time getting us right into the action, dumping a lot of information into the beginning so that he can focus on the scares for the rest of the book.
Each chapter ratchets up the intensity, and Woodward finds new ways to keep us on our toes. I was constantly surprised at how he could switch lanes into a whole new avenue of horror without missing a beat. Multiple times throughout the book I thought we were at a point where I could relax only to have the rug pulled out from under me as a new threat was introduced. Hell, we quickly discover that Woodward has no problem showing us that no one is safe. All of this creates a sense of urgency and true fear that by the end of the book everyone is going to be dead.
An introduction tells us that Tamer Animals could be considered a mix of Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Stand By Me. This is very true, however, I also think you could throw in The Ritual by Adam Nevill. Woodward weaves back and forth between all three, pulling concepts from each to make his own unique blend of dangerous woods/coming-of-age/discovering an evil exists far greater than what is at home. I do wish one of the two stories wasn’t mentioned because there’s a reveal that I think would have been more effective if I wasn’t looking for it. Woodward does take it in a new direction that’s unexpected and shocking, so it’s only a small gripe.
As long as I’m writing about gripes, there were a couple of things that didn’t work for me. The main one being the Goatman. It’s built up quite a bit in the story, yet the payoff is lacking. The characters almost seem to forget about this urban legend stalking the woods, deflating all the hype that was hinted at through the beginning half of the book. In fact, I totally forgot about him until someone randomly mentioned him. I also had a hard time swallowing the backstories for some of our characters. A lot of time is devoted to telling us about an evil stepfather, a cousin that is a racist bully, the teachers that don’t understand the boys, and a boy that has to masturbate all the time. Seriously, like all the time. It comes across as clunky and forced, not matching the pace and tension that fills the rest of the book.
There’s a prequel that just came out that I am honestly excited to read. Woodward hints at a much bigger story that I think could be really interesting. As for Tamer Animals, if you are looking for a disturbing story about what lurks in the woods, then this is perfect. The visuals and atmosphere will seriously make you question covered bridges, lone trees, and late nights in a steamy forest. I do have to warn you, once you are within Woodward’s grasp he won’t let up until he is sure you are truly afraid, and even then he might just hold on a bit longer.