They Kill by Tim Waggoner

They Kill_Tim Waggoner.jpg

Publisher: Flame Tree Press | Release Date: July 25, 2019 | Pages: 240

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

They Kill is a bit of an odd duck overall. It has a lot of neat concepts, but narratively it didn’t really come fully together for me and required a fair bit more willing suspension of disbelief than I was capable of giving. I typically like Tim Waggoner’s stuff, but I definitely prefer his more direct — and more directly believable — stories, like A Kiss of Thorns and The Winter Box. They Kill, as with his previous Flame Tree Press release, The Mouth of the Dark, goes all-in with the weird, even more so than that prior title, which is saying a lot!

One year ago, Sierra’s brother was killed in a tragic car accident. And yet, Jeffrey is up and about again, wandering the streets of their hometown. He’s been resurrected by a long blond-haired man in a black suit named Corliss, and given a strange gift, the touch of death. Any living thing Jeffrey touches turns to ash. But that’s not all! Sierra’s stalker ex-boyfriend, her drunk neighbor, and a few others have been changed by Corliss, too, and are all gunning for Sierra, eager to exact revenge for the perceived injustices perpetrated by the woman at the center of their crosshairs.

Waggoner shows off a lot of unique forms of body horror with this one, particularly as he details Stuart’s transformation from an overbearing, control freak, electronics store salesman to a deadly, psychopathic cyborg whose body grows all kinds of high-tech goodies to aid him in his hunt. Each of Sierra’s deadly adversaries undergo some kind of radical change, turning them into killer mutants that wouldn’t be out of place in the X-Men’s Brotherhood of Evil.

It’s clear Waggoner has a lot of fun taking such a deep dive into the inexplicable, but the big lingering question at the heart of They Kill is why? Who is Corliss, what does he want, and why is he targeting Sierra? There are a big questions that Waggoner is content to ignore for as long as possible as he, instead, focuses on making strange, bloodthirsty murderers to set against Sierra and Jeffrey’s lover, Marc. Mind you, this is OK, to a certain extent, but around two-thirds of the way through, I was itching for answers and wishing They Kill had some kind of a point to it. Corliss spends too much of the narrative as an enigma, and readers are left in the dark for so long that it becomes a huge struggle to remain invested in this particular freakshow. I found myself getting bored with the chase, particularly as Waggoner kept creating one more weirdo killer after another, seemingly with little reason beyond mayhem.

By the time we do get an idea of what Corliss wants and why Sierra has found herself in the middle of all this insanity, the book is nearly over and the resolution feels rushed. The trajectory Sierra is spun off into as a result of these answers feels under baked, and I would have liked to have seen more of her response and growth as she adjusts to understanding why she’s been targeted.

There is plenty of good stuff happening within these pages, though. I dug the burgeoning friendship that developed between Sierra and Marc, the two people closest to Jeffrey but who also found themselves at odds. Jeffrey’s resurrection draws them together in a way that neither his life nor his death managed, and by forcing them to work together in order to survive, Waggoner creates a really compelling relationship between them. Sierra’s ex, Stuart, and her alcoholic neighbor, Grace, are both intolerable, love-to-hate villains and every time they showed up, I kept hoping it’d be their last scene. I really wanted to see them meet their comeuppance, and the sooner the better! One of the more compelling characters, though, was Randall, a retiree who lives across the street from Sierra’s parents, and who crafts pennies with smiley faces on them, which he calls Chucks, to pass out to the people he meets. It’s his attempt to do a good deed but, good lord, is it ever creepy, and it’s pretty amusing to see people react to his eccentricity, as well as what results from his meeting with Corliss. I couldn’t help but wonder where the idea about these Chucks came from and if this was something Waggoner drew on from personal experience or observation, or if it was just another deranged product of his unique imagination. And let’s face it, as far as imaginations go, Waggoner’s got one hell of a creative mind.

They Kill is a decent read, but it feels a bit imbalanced as the more interesting aspects of the plot get buried beneath an onslaught of oddities. Mind you, Waggoner does write some good straight-up weird horror, but I can’t help but feel like this is a lesser installment in his massive body of work. It’s not a bad way to kill some time, but it doesn’t approach the heights of other strange deeds he’s laid to page, like his post-apocalyptic The Last Mile.