Review: I Am Not A Serial Killer by Dan Wells
by Tom Ingram
I Am Not A Serial Killer is the emphatically non-autobiographical debut novel by horror writer Dan Wells. Wells wrote a Big Idea piece on John Scalzi’s website Whatever a while back, which I encourage you to check out. It’s nifty. That’s the whole reason I bought the book, as I had never heard of Wells before, and probably would never even stray into the section it was kept in had I not been looking for it.
I Am Not A Serial Killer takes on an ambitious idea: what if the main character was a sociopath? Could we still sympathize with him and learn to love him the way we would any other character? Of course, “sociopaths” aren’t hard to come by in fiction, and often we admire their panache and insane charm. But Wells decided to write a realistic character with Anti-Social Personality Disorder, not somebody who kills with impunity, but someone who cannot connect with others the way most people can, who doesn’t understand emotions except on an intellectual level.
On top of that, the main character, John Wayne Cleaver, seems destined to become a serial killer. His name alone connects him to two serial killers. His father’s name is Sam, and his last name is a murder weapon. He has the three traits that have been identified as common traits of serial killers–pyromania, cruelty to animals, and persistent bed wetting after a certain age. John speaks of a “monster” inside himself, but he understands on an academic level that killing is wrong, and he builds up an elaborate set of rules to keep himself from doing anything horrible. Wells makes it possible to love John Wayne Cleaver even if you’re repulsed by him at times. This is one of the more interesting characters I’ve read recently, and definitely the best treatment of mental illness in fiction I’ve ever seen.
The plot follows the arrival of a serial killer in the small town of Clayton. John, who has an obsession with serial killers and their methods, is fascinated and pokes around, eventually witnessing one of the murders himself. The killer turns out to be something unexpected. Without going into details, suffice to say that I Am Not A Serial Killer belongs in Fantasy or Horror, not the general fiction section. I had no warning of this going in, so it came way out of left field. I don’t like this kind of trickery. It’s not that I have a problem with this style of fiction, but I do like to know roughly what I’m going to see going in. Obviously none of this is really the author’s fault, so you can’t hold it against him.
Regardless of that, I blew through this book in just two days, partly because of its short length (under 300 pages), but mostly because I couldn’t put it down. This is a great read, through and through.