Wesley Southard’s „Cruel Summer“ is a mixed bag in the eyes of this reviewer. It is wonderfully and unashamedly Splatterpunk, but it also follows the trend a lot of horror is taking, that of new interpretation of old myth and legend, presented with a modern horror writers unabashed love of shock and violence. It has its highs and lows, things I appreciated and things I didn’t, but Splatterpunk is always going to embrace some readers and distance others due to its breakneck speed, as evidenced here.
The things I liked – Wesley’s character work. It shines here throughout the book and is the core of the success of the novel. Melissa’s (the female MC) struggle is real, and you have to give kudos to Mr.Southard for such a great portrayal of a woman suffering abuse at the hands of her lover. First and foremost a mother, her entire character arc is built around protecting and raising her son, negating self-happiness and fulfilment, and concentrating on providing the best upbringing she can under the circumstances. It’s a theme that plays well, and Southard captures the mental process such a victim can go through brilliantly – it struck a sympathetic chord with me. Hoyt - the abusive boyfriend - is a little stereotypical, the abusive hillbilly, but there were moments of brilliance here too – Wesley’s plays straight to our prejudices and touches all our nerves – the mention of Trump’s wall? Fantastic. How could we not hate the man? Great stuff, Wesley. To give us a glimpse of a different Hoyt on the boat, for one second, to show the type of man he could be, was well done. There was no doubt that it was all going to go to hell, but the captured second of normality before the fall was well placed.
Jordan- the nerd- the rediscovered father, also played well, until I realized why he was there. His character was wonderful, everything a father should be, and a great comparison to the aggressive Hoyt. However, his role in the finale was so underplayed it became clear his role was that of info dump – cleverly disguised, but nevertheless the answer to the introduction of the myth behind the reality. Regardless, Jordan remained one of my favourite characters in the book, he was both well observed and someone to root for.
From the style, I think it’s fair to liken it to Matthew Reilly, who is frankly open about his cinematic influences. Similarly, Southard seems to have wanted an action-packed special effects extravaganza to finish the story, with little regard for the readers level of reasonable doubt – both Patrick and Melissa’s injuries were forgotten in the rush to climax the story. The powers Cetus displays in his quest for domination are inconsistent – he can make water appear from nowhere to flood a stairwell whilst leaving the rest of the building dry – can bring Melissa into a swimming pool unaware of her own actions, yet has to chase her with a tidal wave to catch her? The ending seems to have been written more for cinematic effect than logical portrayal of a god’s powers.
I have to draw comparisons to Frank Schätzning’s “The Swarm” – I don’t think any story about a power from the ocean rising up against mankind can fail to look at his influence. It’s a totally different take of course, this book is all about the shock, horror and cinematic effect of an evil entity, whereas Schätzning’s book has immaculately dry world building, an attempt to explain the “how” of the manifestations. Nevertheless, where “The swarm” has bone hard logic, “Cruel summer” rides it’s own wave of mad supernatural horror - and it’s a rollercoaster ride of thrills, let there be no doubt about that. I devoured the book in two sittings – it IS a page turner. But at the end of the day, I was too aware of the frailty of the full screen effect. I wanted to know the why of it all. Myths turning into reality have been done very well – Gaimen’s “American Gods” springs to mind, or more recently Pelayo’s “Children of Chicago”. This was a good attempt at a lesser-known myth, Cetus, but the finale – Perseus coming from nowhere in a watery form? Patrick was enough of a hero in his own right and deserved to have saved the day by himself. The answer as presented here, was Hollywood, and unfortunately left a taste of overused special effects. But as I said in the begining, that's all a part of the genre, and stuck true to it's origins.
I'm awarding this a four-star rating, based on Southard’s wonderful character work in the beginning and middle of the book, the fight on the boat and the relationship development on all three of the main characters. That was sterling work, and made this novel rise up past it's breakneck but unfortunately unbelievable ending.
I received a free copy of the book in return for an honest review. All opinions are unbiased, my own, and I’m grateful to both Mr. Southard, Death's Head Press and Sadie Hartmann for the opportunity to read the ARC.