Scratches by Joshua Marsella - a book review
Debut novels are always a cry into the void, and how the readers and reviewers perceive them is based on a number of factors both inside the novels and outside of them and thereby the authors that wrote them. Scratches is a great example of that phenomenon and one that worked, at least for this reviewer.
I know Joshua from being online and was predisposed to liking the book before I had read it. Josh is a fun guy, a stay-at-home dad, devoted to his new family and his new passion, writing, and he’s taken the time to get his writing up to scratch (pun intended), with the help and advice from some of the prevalent voices in Indie horror today.
Regardless of that help, however, this is all Joshua, his voice, compassion, and newly found parenthood stamping themselves onto all the details in his lovingly rendered, wonderful debut.
The core of Marsella’s story is a relationship, as are all good books, and the cast list here is deliberately kept small. The protagonist, Conner, a child dealing with a somewhat neglectful (in his opinion) mother, Janet, sets up his bedroom in the basement of a house they have inherited from their newly deceased grandfather, George, a man with a past who the young family fled from.
I’m not going to explain this one, or give clues to where it is going, the length of the novella is long enough to hold its own with the reveals it brings, it doesn’t need me to explain it away, so instead, I want to concentrate on some other factors to illustrate what Joshua did, and didn’t do, within the novel.
Joshua was a US Soldier, that joined the forces straight out of school and served in Iraq, if memory serves, in the capacity as a carpenter, I think I remember…? And I think that has a bearing here. From my perspective, that sense of duty, or more succinctly, responsibility, is a core belief both personally for Josh, and for his characters. It is an integral part of the personalities of both Janet and Conner and is what makes them so likable. What appears as a neglectful mother is transformed in the novella into a woman dealing with trauma, but doing so for the love of her child. It’s Parenthood 101, and what raises the novel up. Trauma is a theme within the novel, both in the relationship of Conner and his mother, but also with George, the grandfather, and his experiences (spoiler-free). I believe that trauma was informed writing, and Joshua brought it across succinctly.
There are things here that I felt were absent. Joshua is a horror aficionado, his love of the genre is shown in the cinematic effect he has incorporated into the book. Scratches is a horror film enthusiast's love note, with its sound effects and tension building, however, the background, for me, is what is missing. The WHY of it all is left as irrelevant – also the HOW, possibly for exploration in a subsequent book. Radios turn on to spooky music, but the nerd in me wanted to know how that happened? Rightly, Joshua focuses instead on an exploration of personalities and their bonds to other people. The comic store bookseller cameo is a highlight because of how Joshua nailed personality construction.
There’s a lot to love in this novella, if you ignore the man behind the curtain in the corner and don’t ask HOW? Flow is phenomenal, I read the book in the two and a half hours it took to travel back home on the motorway, my son happily driving whilst I was being chased in a basement. It is a happy indulgence, it’s well written, it’s a great place to go to for an evening, written by someone that writes horror with a father’s sensibility to all of his children, and this is certainly one of his kids. The horror is psychological, a Hitchcockian approach to a fantastic debut.
More of the same, please, Josh. This is a solid 4 stars, and a lovingly rendered book full of great series potential and passion for character work. Great stuff.
4 of five stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐ and I look forward to the prequel, which is waiting on my kindle.