Review – “Flesh Worn Stone” by John A. Burks Jr.
As well as having enjoyed the author’s short stories before, I was lured to this novel by a sharp title, snuff-esque cover, and a description that delighted my ghoulish soul. “Flesh Worn Stone” sounded lurid, Laymonian, and perhaps with a bit of Battle Royale thrown in. And it turns out, that’s exactly what it is. And much more besides.
Our unfortunate main player is Steven, an ordinary suburban American. After witnessing the murder of his sons, he’s kidnapped along with his wife Rebecca and wakes up to discover they’ve been imprisoned in a cage on the edge of a beautiful beach with a handful of strangers.
The confused bunch learn that they’ve been brought to an isolated island, but their new home isn’t paradise. It’s a foetid, ghastly cave beneath the cliffs. Here they join countless others and must play “The Game”: a sickening revamp of the coliseum of ancient Rome in which the contestants murder, rape and self-mutilate for the entertainment of hidden masters. This world of violent slavery has been going on for a long, long time, and those not strong to enough to survive end up in the dinner pot.
“Flesh Worn Stone” piles straight in without dawdling and lets us discover our protagonists through action and motive. The characters are intriguing, carried by strong dialogue, and some clearly have a dark side that keeps us guessing. I particularly enjoyed the development of a mild Middle-American into a killer boiling with rage. It’s believable, and presents the theme that we’re all potential savages, which isn’t easily done without seeming clumsy. Despite one early scene when two characters seem prematurely casual about witnessing atrocity, this is a deftly tackled angle.
I loved the thought-provoking manner in which the cave is actually policed. There’s lots of tribal psychology going on between the layers, and it’s fascinating to see the different responses to rules, peer-pressure, and how people will adapt to survive by working together or stabbing backs.
This novel is very well structured. The pace is tight and questions slowly answered through character back stories, and while there are twists, they’re not cheap shots and I never felt cheated. Our character loyalties are bounced around, and the second half gathers even more momentum.
It’s also a very evocative read. Every time I returned, it was like stepping back into that stinking cave. The author also uses this talent to describe scenes of appalling violence with such elegance that it adds a whole new layer of wrong, without reducing the realistic impact. The fights are exciting and clear - where many writers fall – although there were a couple of scenes that didn’t add up. For example, one murder in which somebody briefly crawled on after death seemed so absurd that it completely took me out of the moment.
Which brings me to the flaws. The author has a tendency towards overdescription, and I was also occasionally jarred by odd turns of phrase and poor similes that I’m sure could’ve been coaxed out with a keener edit, because the prose style generally works very well. One chapter confusingly began without establishing which character we were following, and there are formatting errors, typos and spelling mistakes. I don’t mind a couple throughout the whole book, but several in a single chapter is annoying.
I was also slightly confused by a few practical reality issues. I didn’t get how the waiting times to see the cave’s “doctor” were so long, unless this was a satirical joke. And with rotten meat being eaten and such terrible sanitation, people would be constantly exploding with diarrhoea, vomiting and dropping dead all over the place from infection and disease.
But these problems can’t topple a book built upon such a grim and outrageous concept – much of which we don’t discover until later on – and one that is so well executed that it all seems real. I particularly like the insinuation that once somebody has discovered their beast, there’s no going back. The cruelty is huge as the forces of control, natural selection and hunger come out to play, and builds towards a very satisfying finale that was both gleeful and ice-cold.
Despite its cracks, “Flesh Worn Stone” comes close to being a vicious horror classic. I loved it, and it’s been a while since I’ve been so writhingly impatient to return to a book between reads. The pages bleed with violence, and the first fight had me grimacing yet hungry for more. And when this kind of brutality is combined with strong characterisation, plot and an intelligent understanding of the human condition, it makes for a very powerful and memorable read.
The flesh worn stone awaits. It’s your turn to play the Game.
Ebook available from Amazon and other usual outlets.