Thursday, May 28, 2015

A retirement home to die for

Mercy House

By Adam Cesare

Publisher: Hydra

Pub. Date: June 9, 2015

Rating: 3 & 1/2 out of 5 stars

The setting for Adam Cesare's Mercy House may be as depressing as it gets. Harriet is reluctantly brought to the state-of-the-art retirement home called Mercy House by her son and his wife, Don and Nikki. As they tour the home, a change comes over the elderly residents. It is a change that brings violence and depravity to the facility and leaves some staff and visitors desperately trying to survive as the residents kill, rape and eat their way through the night.

Setting the action in a retirement home is a tricky endeavor and invites all type of analogizing. The fact that the author provides no clear motive for the transformation of the residents is an interesting tactic. Without an explanation, we are forced to look at the action and emotions of the characters, searching for rationalizations where that may be none. Some readers have focused on the zombie-like state of the transformed seniors but I don't see it. The elderly protagonists go from helpless victims to savage victimizers in a moment. They are violent but still alert, more so than before and stronger than before. The viciousness in which they go after the caretakers imply an almost obsessive revenge, a turning of the tables so to speak. This theme of docility turned savage is not new. There are some comparisons that can be made to other sources. The focusing on one building where the characters are trapped and reverting to a primitive state is similar to J. G. Ballard's Highrise while there is a very similar setup in Cronenberg's early horror film Shiver. But I kept thinking that I may actually be reading sort of a geriatric Lord of the Flies. Are not the very old sometimes thought of as being in a second age of innocence especially as physical and mental frailty sets in. And if that was removed suddenly along with the effects of returned strength and heightened libido and emotions, could not the result be a wave of hostility and revenge upon those who controlled them?

Yes, Mercy House brings forth a load of questions. But are they the reader's or the author's? it is a little hard to say since Cesare's incredibly violent and intense novel never really lets up enough to indulge in answers. The author writes like in a whirlwind going to one shocking scene after another. it is really quite impressive. He focuses on a few of the characters more than others in a way that gives pretty much a capsule study on modes of survival. Nikki is basically the main focus, lost in the meaning of it all but simply trying to survive. Sarah is a nurse quickly headed for burnout when the events becomes for her a sad karmic accusation. Of the elder residents, Arnold Piper, a veteran, turns the horrors into what sometimes seemed to me like a gruesome re-enactment of his war years. And finally, there is Harriett, whose violent transformation is dominated by the obsessive hatred she has for the daughter-in-law she always resented.

Yes, there is a lot to take in here. Yet Mercy House is a visceral, controversial and ultimately difficult read. Cesare's skills are so good that his descriptions bring you into the action maybe a little too intimately. Intense may be an understatement. If one can handle the extreme ride it is a very rewarding if exhausting tale. But at times I wished he slowed down and gave the reader time and clues to ponder all the madness. I don't need explanations in a novel all the time but in this one I wonder if it would have been a little more helpful to tie the themes and action together.

Yet it is still a sick but wonderful roller coaster ride. I would certainly recommend this to those who enjoy extreme horror but also to those who want to see where the young writers in the genre are heading. For me, it is nice to know that the younger writers can still find stories that make us old veteran horror readers a little queasy.

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