Novella Review: We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory
Genre: Horror, Paranormal
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Tachyon (August 12, 2014)
Mogsy’s Rating: 4 of 5 stars
If you recall in my review of Harrison Squared, I described that book as a fun, adventurous mystery which strikes the perfect balance for teen and adult crossover appeal. Well, nothing could be further from my experience with We Are All Completely Fine. Rather, try descriptions like “traumatic”, “disturbing” and “mature audiences only”.
Don’t get me wrong, though; I’ve developed a taste for horror fiction in recent years, and I loved this book. But what surprised me was just how completely different this it from Harrison Squared, which is actually its prequel. In fact, that was what prompted me to pick up We Are All Completely Fine, after finding out how the two books were related, and because I wanted to read more from Daryl Gregory.
The teenaged Harrison whom I first met in Harrison Squared is presently a man in his mid-thirties. Not that he was a jolly personality even at aged sixteen, but as an adult he has become even more gloomy, jaded and world-weary. He’s a famous author now, known for his “Monster Detective” childrens’ stories starring the boy hero from Dunnsmouth named Jameson Jameson, AKA Jameson Squared (things are getting kind of meta here). He’s also seeing a psychiatrist, which is how he eventually landed in a support group with four other members – Stan, Barbara, Martin, and Greta – led by the psychotherapist Dr. Jan Sayer.
Some reviewers have remarked on the strange quirk in the narrative style, specifically how at the beginning of each chapter in this book an unknown narrator appears to be speaking in the first person, though the usage of the pronoun “we” suggests he or she would be part of the support group. However, after a few paragraphs the narration will invariably shift back to the third person. As strange as it sounds, this style immediately brought to my mind the movie The Breakfast Club. Director John Hughes used a slightly different but similar “breaking the fourth wall” technique with voiceover narration at the beginning of the film, explaining to the audience what’s going to happen and why all the characters were there. This creates a kind of “reflection to the past” effect which helps us gain a slightly better understanding. In the case of this book, it tells you that despite the horror that is coming, you know that at least some members of this group managed to survive and come through intact. Well…mostly.
And perhaps comparing this book to The Breakfast Club isn’t so absurd, if you think about it. Instead of five teenagers who have little in common with each other, all trying to fit in amidst the crushing pressures of high school life, you have five likely-insane adults who have little in common with each other, all trying to get by in their normal day lives without the crushing fear of appearing completely unhinged. The characters in The Breakfast Club find themselves in detention, where none of them want to be. The characters of We Are All Completely Fine find themselves in group therapy, where none of them want to be. Despite their differences, the teens in TBC realize they are more than their individual stereotypes, and band together against a common enemy, Principal Vernon. Despite their differences, the strangers in WAACF realize they are more than their individual fucked up pasts, and band together against a common enemy, an ancient all-devouring evil from another world entirely.
All fanciful comparisons to classic 80s movies aside though, this was a fantastic book. It’s the characters that make We Are All Completely Fine – mainly because they are all so completely not. Everyone in Dr. Sayer’s support group is there because they have experienced something terrifying and traumatic…but also unexplainable. No one would believe them if they told their stories of what really happened to them. Unraveling each group member’s mystery is therefore the first step of this hair-raising journey, and my favorite part of the novella. How does Stan handle his minor celebrity status, after being abducted by a family of cannibals a la The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, and emerging as the sole survivor? What message did the Scrimshander leave on Barbara’s bones twenty years ago, when he bound her, drugged her, and carved up her flesh with his knives? Why doesn’t Martin ever want to take off his sunglasses? And Greta, what awful inconceivable secrets must she be hiding behind her silence?
However, the biggest mystery of all – at least to me – was what on earth happened to the Harrison Harrison that I thought I knew from Harrison Squared?
It does make me wonder now, how I would have felt if I hadn’t read that book first before this one. We Are All Completely Fine reveals no major spoilers but does refer to many of the significant events from Harrison Squared, especially those relating to the nightmarish creature called The Scrimshander. It’s made me rethink everything I read in the prequel novel. How much of it was glossed over, played down for “a story for kids?” Mind you, I want to make it clear that reading this in no way diminished my experience with HS, but I am now looking at it in a whole different light. It’s that meta thing again. In a weird trippy way, the two books actually complement each other very well.
Well, now I realize I’ve gone about this review in a very roundabout way. Partly, it’s because I don’t want to spoil too much of the story. We Are All Completely Fine is an average-sized novella, a very quick read, and yet it is just so densely packed with goodness. It just begs to be experienced firsthand. True, it might not be an easy read at times, with its disturbing themes and bone-chilling violence, but I did also find it tremendously addicting. Needless to say, I highly recommend this book and author. It’s a good place to jump on board if you love the horror genre, or if you’re curious about checking out Daryl Gregory’s work. I for one am looking forward to more from his pen.
A review copy of this book was provided to me by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. My thanks to Tachyon Publications!