Don’t let anybody ever tell you life’s fair. Not as long as I’m in it.
What one realizes soon after starting Stephen Graham Jones’s The Least of My Scars, is that based solely on its subject matter and physical length, economy of execution must rule the day, or it won’t work.
Said length is a tight 183 pages. Said subject matter is murder and body disposal, with a little cannibalism thrown in to lighten the mood.
Our perpetrator is one William Colton Hughes, serial killer and unreliable narrator extraordinaire. Unreliable because one is never sure when he’s speaking to us, himself, or any one of the bodies he keeps in his near-labyrinthine apartment complex which functions both as his home and office.
Whoever his audience of the moment, the reader won’t be able to resist listening.
The plot is as basic as it is wonderfully lurid. As Hughes tells us early on, he’s been killing for sixteen years until he got “saved” in the thirteenth when, in the midst of cutting up a yoga instructor inside a public storage unit, he’s interrupted by a debonair man named Singer, along with his two armed goons. The yoga instructor turns out to be Singer’s wife, whom he tracked there by the microchip implanted in her dog as a means to check whether or not she’s been cheating on him. Singer is not the least bit distraught by what he finds, and instead offers Hughes a deal: if he would become Singer’s personal, in-house murder-and-disposal man, Singer would house and keep him secure, as well as feed his appetites by sending right to his doorstep a steady stream of failed employees, witnesses, and overall impediments to his criminal enterprise.
After some grizzly coercion from Singer which is meant to test Hughes’s skillset, along with his survival instincts, he’s soon set up in the fourth floor of one of Singer’s fleabag apartment buildings called the Chesshire Arms. Here the unit above Hughes, the ones to either side, and the two below are kept empty in order to stave off noise and suspicion so that he can do his work with a minimum of worry.
What follows is a series of murder-and-disposal vignettes of various unwitting folk sent by Singer under false pretenses, though as witnessed through Hughes’s psychopathic lens, come off mostly as monotonous chores after the initial thrill of the actual killing passes. Much time is spent with Hughes engaging in self-conversation and proto-philosophical musings.
All the things you pray for when you’re young, they don’t turn out to be exactly what you really wanted after all.
Jones depicts him as a man who’s his own best audience, with the justifications of his nature being one of his preferred topics.
Some of the people you escort out of the world, it’s just a job, something to occupy your afternoon. Others, though, others you learn a little something from. So it’s like they never die, really. At least not until you do. And in spite of what they said with their eyes right before their pupils went all fixed and dilated, focused on something I always thought was right behind me but never could turn fast enough to see.
The central conflict of the book emerges when a mysterious woman starts engaging Hughes through the cell phone of one of his first Chesshire Arms victims, a young man who may or may not have been her boyfriend. Hughes, who refers to the woman as Dashboard Mary throughout, spends a great deal of time trying to ascertain her true motives. Sometimes she leaves him clues at his doorstep, or in the corridor outside. Once even inside one of the empty neighboring apartments. Is it vengeance she’s after, or something more elaborate? All Hughes knows for certain is that she’s fully aware of who he is and what he does.
As he engages Dashboard Mary in increasingly tense verbal chess-matches over the phone, he starts to piece the clues together. By the time Singer returns to the picture, Hughes has assembled something that approaches coherence in his mind regarding all parties involved, at which point Jones skillfully pulls the rug right out from under both Hughes’s and the reader’s expectations, yielding a resolution that’s at once surprising, dubious in its probability, and yet somehow heartbreaking.
The Least of My Scars is simple and taut in its execution, following a straight-forward linear structure—something of a departure for Jones whose previous novels tend to play with and juggle multiple timelines, though rarely ever in any detracting way. Jones is highly gifted in characterization and language, and in this book he maximizes them in order to skate the fine line between genre exploitation, and simply going too far. As stated earlier, economy is crucial when dealing with a main character bereft of empathy and concrete motive, and if not for Hughes’s unintentional humor—by way of Jones’s deft language—he would be almost impossible to endure.
If one of Jones’s main themes is a loss of innocence (Growing Up Dead in Texas, Flushboy), then The Least of My Scars represents the polar-extreme conclusion of this loss. Even with the dark humor braided throughout, this is a dark, nihilistic, and challenging read. For those expecting justice or pat conclusions, it is recommended that you look elsewhere. Jones is a writer who delves—albeit intelligently—in horror, crime, and all its subgenres from the bizarre to the grotesque, where elliptical conclusions and unresolved paradoxes are the norm. If one is willing to allow the unnerving to linger long after the book has been shelved, then by all means proceed with all your senses open.
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