Swine Hill is full of the Dead in Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones

eARC Review of “Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones”
by Micah Dean Hicks

Stats

  • 5 out of 5 Stars
  • Hardcover
  • 304 pages
  • Expected publication: February 5th, 2019 by John Joseph Adams/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

About

“[T]his novel is extraordinary . . . It is Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, mixed with H. G. Wells’s The Island of Doctor Moreau, set in the creepiest screwed-up town since ’Salem’s Lot . . . [A] major achievement.” — Adam-Troy Castro, Sci-Fi magazine

Swine Hill was full of the dead. Their ghosts were thickest near the abandoned downtown, where so many of the town’s hopes had died generation by generation. They lingered in the places that mattered to them, and people avoided those streets, locked those doors, stopped going into those rooms . . . They could hurt you. Worse, they could change you.

Jane is haunted. Since she was a child, she has carried a ghost girl that feeds on the secrets and fears of everyone around her, whispering to Jane what they are thinking and feeling, even when she doesn’t want to know. Henry, Jane’s brother, is ridden by a genius ghost that forces him to build strange and dangerous machines. Their mother is possessed by a lonely spirit that burns anyone she touches. In Swine Hill, a place of defeat and depletion, there are more dead than living.

When new arrivals begin scoring precious jobs at the last factory in town, both the living and the dead are furious. This insult on the end of a long economic decline sparks a conflagration. Buffeted by rage on all sides, Jane must find a way to save her haunted family and escape the town before it kills them.


My Thoughts

“They could hurt

you. Worse,

they could

change you.”

Swine hill is a place that will hurt your body, wrack your soul at the altar of human selfishness, and destroy you. Imagine living in this place. Imagine working at the store or a packing plant here. Imagine having to share part of your soul with the undead. Hick’s characters do, and for a short time, we readers also do.  Hick’s has invented a story that is so rife with pain, imagination, and horrors that if you could take the spawn of Dr. Moreau and The Haunting of Hill House you would have something close to this. Haunt is unsettling in ways that made me uncomfortable deep down in my bones.

Hicks explores the premise of a haunted family in a haunted town. It centers around the protagonists Jane and Henry. Brother and sister trapped with the souls of unsettled ghosts inside them. In Jane’s case, it is the soul of a woman who thrives on conflict and secrets. The spirit silently whispers to jane the horrible thoughts and intentions of those around her. Henry has the ghost of a mad inventor inside him seeking to create incredible and awful machines whose purpose is sometimes unknown. The pair is also influenced by their mother and father, both haunted. Her mother is haunted by a person so craving affection that her body physically radiates heat. Enough to burn and scar. Jane is the heart of the family. Silently she pounds away at life and looks after her family as best as she can within the circumstances.

The crux of the story rests around Henry and how his mad ghost creates things. This time Henry invents pig people. Upright human-like animals that are built to self-slaughter and could eventually render the town and by extension humans obsolete. Henry creates many, but individually we meet Hog Boss and his kind son Dennis. Both are good-natured and thoughtful people set at deliberate juxtaposition to the rest of the “human” inhabitants of the town. Enter the fearful townsfolk, frightened of the unknown, in both the pig people and the loss of their livelihood. What happens next can only be described as an explosive clash between the old ways and the new all within the context of Jane attempting to save people.

“Her mother’s ghost

made the house

a suffocating place.

She didn’t touch Jane

often for fear

that she would burn

her.”

The setting in the story is unrestrainedly unworldly. The writing drips darkness and moisture from every page and sometimes, I could swear my kindle was fogging up from the cold. Hicks absolutely has created a world where you should be very afraid that ghosts will settle in your bones.

The underlying theme of this story is relationships: sister to brother, mother to son, lover to lover. In this, it is the immense power of links that can drive a person to the unthinkable or the extraordinary. What would I do for the person I love? What would I do to the person I hate? Person to person a spiderweb of narrative and relationships is created. This web holds the town together and eventually culminating in it blasting apart. 

It is poignantly cruel that these characters, so afflicted, must also contend with the worst problems we see in our own world. Hicks will unflinchingly show you the horrific visage of ghosts and nightmares pulled from the headlines of our own world, leaving you to wonder whether one lot is truly fundamentally worse than the other. And yet, perhaps it is true that they who would grow must first be made to suffer. Certainly, the growth we see in these characters is the result of a purposefully built set of trials and woes; it is not an easy journey for us to follow but it rewards us as only a master-crafted tale can.

Things get harsh and really painful for the characters in this story. I know I have alluded to it vaguely, but I don’t want to give away the cleverness of the story. It is scary, mystical, and bittersweet. It absolutely deserves all of the forthcoming awards that are going to be thrown at it. If you are a fan of the horror/bizarro genre, look no further than this book, but even more so if you are a fan of the written word and the power it can wield, this is a worthy read.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for a free copy of this ebook in exchange for an unbiased review. All opinions are my own. Quotations are taken from an uncorrected proof and may change upon publication.

About the Author

Micah Dean Hicks is the author of the novel Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones. He is also the author of Electricity and Other Dreams, a collection of dark fairy tales and bizarre fables. His writing has appeared in The New York Times, The Kenyon Review, and elsewhere. Hicks grew up in rural southwest Arkansas and now lives in Orlando. He teaches creative writing at the University of Central Florida.