A PLACE FOR SINNERS
by Aaron Dries
Amity Collins, a 20-year-old deaf woman, and her 26-year-old brother Caleb, leave the bosom of an overly protective mother, and the sweet rural simplicity of Evans Head, for a wild adventure in Thailand.
They have lived a sheltered existence since the violent death of their father 13 years earlier and, much to their mother’s chagrin, step outside their comfort zone and see another world.
Amity and Caleb are the two most sympathetic characters amongst the unfortunate cast that find themselves conjured into the latest nightmare from Australian horror author Aaron Dries, his third novel A Place for Sinners.
Amongst this cast is the writer’s most vile, memorable and monstrous creation, Susan Sycamore. In one of the book’s most effective sequences, we meet this ugly shell of a woman that was once a British school teacher and mother. But Sycamore has given over to her darkest urges and now brutally murders tourists in remote locations. Thailand happens to be a suitable game park.
The first half of the novel deftly juggles the introduction of the various players. Then they all converge for a cheap day cruise to a remote and exotic Thai island called Koh Mai Phaaw, where they will get to feed the native monkey population. Sycamore, amongst the tourists on the boat, is clearly the wild card in an intriguing pack. On the island, which is the only fictional location in the book, Dries’ omnipotent storyteller is quick to tell us that blood will be shed. He even tells us who will be the first to die. Anyone who has read the author’s previous tales has no reason to doubt him.
On Koh Mai Phaaw, Amity and her fellow tourists face danger, both real and conceptual. The protagonists are confronted by not only the wild hazards of Koh Mai Phaaw, but also their inner demons.
Across his three novels, including his debut House of Sighs and its follow-up The Fallen Boys, Dries has demonstrated a visceral and lyrically dense approach to prose. When mixed with expository flashbacks and vivid, graphic descriptions, his writing is hypnotic.
In A Place for Sinners, Dries is at his most ambitious, both thematically and narratively. Likes it jungle location, the writing is far more dense and requires increased exertion to navigate and digest. Dries also walks a fine line in his descriptions. Some similes and analogies are jarring and feel excessive. Others are poetic and impressive, and serve the imagery in a memorable way. The scene in which Dries depicts half-digested rice floating from a victim’s open stomach is just one moment that is difficult to erase after the final page.
In this sense, his verbosity can act as a double-edged sword. In building characters and tension, Dries’ style can be effective. There are moments of real greatness. But in A Place for Sinners‘ most tense moments, when characters are staring death in the face or running for their lives, it feels like the author should have reined in the language and allowed the bones of the action to propel the narrative. Too often, moments of terror are weighed down with abstract, dream-like introspections, flashbacks and rapid-fire barrages of imagery. When this happens, you might feel like jumping forward to the next instance of reality, to find out what happens next. Like what happens to some of the book’s characters, flaying some flesh from the prose might have increased the impact of the horror.
One of the book’s strengths is its depiction of the Kingdom of Thailand. While the story eventually descends into mayhem, the initial arrival at the country is beautifully realised. Dries travelled through Thailand and clearly absorbed the sights, sounds and smells of the area in intricate detail. He uses the wildlife, which the fictional island is teeming with, to turn up the heat on the pressure cooker that the characters are trapped in. The island is alive and it is not on the side of our protagonists – or antagonists.
The character arc of Amity is at the centre of the story, and she has the inner strength to match the horrors and hurdles that Dries puts in her way. The recurring “underground motif”, introduced literally at the beginning of the book when young Amity is trapped in a cave with feral dogs snapping at her toes, reappears throughout. In this novel, as often in life, transformative experiences take place in the dark. Silence too, eternal to Amity’s deaf ears, is a tunnel that she can never leave. It’s a clever device that works to enhance the claustrophobia of many tense moments. But there are numerous elements in A Place for Sinners that will get under the reader’s skin (especially in the “bed bugs” side plot), and attack the psyche from a number of angles.
A Place for Sinners is Dries’ most cerebral and memorable work, and has a simmering sexuality that is less apparent in past efforts. These elements combine to make a cocktail that is no more suitable for anyone with a weak stomach than his two previous novels or the novella And The Night Growled Back.
If you were to distil the world-view depicted by the author in each story, you might decide that Dries believes life is never without pain and suffering. Or you may conclude that, in order to scare you, Dries knows he has to subvert your belief that the world is a fair place. Either way, he draws on humans’ ability to endure pain as the backbone of each gruesome tale. He clearly believes in this strength, and that mindset adds a palatable layer to his bedrock of nightmarish brutality.
Dries visceral style has flourishes that would make the Marquis de Sade proud, nasty humour that Stephen King might appreciate and, particularly in A Place for Sinners, an abstract sensibility that highlights Dries’ liking of David Lynch. Horror fans that enjoy a bloodthirsty read, no matter how grim, will enjoy this journey into the Thai jungle. However, faint-hearted folk might prefer a holiday read of a very different kind.
* A Place for Sinners is out now as a paperback and eBook and is published by Samhain Horror.