I hadn’t read a novel by Daniel I Russell before, and “Mother’s Boys” from Blood Bound Books was certainly a startling place to start. Full of high-octane horror, this is for those who like a bit of moral ambiguity to keep them on their toes.
We meet Nat, a young woman with punk and goth tendencies who strives to be different from the crowd. Despite her subversive attitude, she lives an ordinary life, treading water in a dull restaurant job during which she looks forward to spending time with her boyfriend, Simon.
But one night outside a rough back-street pub, she witnesses some of Simon’s old friends attack a woman and starts to wonder about his past. She’s soon drawn into a battle between her boyfriend’s vicious ex-crew and a dangerous family that live in the sprawling sewer network beneath the streets. But choosing a side is far from easy, and Nat finds both her loyalties and her sense of right and wrong tested, not to mention learning the true nature of the outcast.
Nat is a solid character to drive this tale. She’s pleasant, sharp and generally sensible, but also harbours an impulsive naivety that lands her in trouble from time to time. Her familiar normality also helps to contrast the other main players, who are anything but.
Simon’s old gang are proper bastards. Johan, the leader, is a creatively misogynistic psychopath who has issues with OCD and rage, and you know it’s never going to be boring when him and his croneys turn up. They put me in mind of Alex and his droogs from “A Clockwork Orange” : the charismatic evil leader and his 3 lesser but tempestuous charges.
And as for the family of sewer dwellers, they’re a mixed bag of the monstrous and the humane. After an introduction in which they seem to be genre-conventional cannibalistic predators, we slowly realise that there’s depth to the family too, and become curious regarding the fraternal compassion and intelligence that keeps them alive down in the putrid darkness.
In fact, it’s the layers that make all the characters in this novel work. We learn more about them all through several reveals, and this is how they play with our loyalties. Will Simon fall back into his shadowed ways of yore? How far will Nat and the sewer family go to protect themselves? Whether driven by revenge, survival or love, there’s a pleasing ambivalence all round and any character investment in “Mother’s Boys” is far from clear-cut. Once the boundaries have been blurred, it’s easy to spend much of this book bouncing around and wondering who the monsters really are.
With a knack for atmosphere, this author takes us into the heart of the crumbling alleyways, bars and sewers of the city, and also writes action very well. When you’ve got multiple characters fighting in dark, enclosed spaces, this kind of scenario can get confusing – not to mention dull – but I was with it all the way.
As well as plenty of seamless action, there are nightmarish moments down in the sewers, and some shocking images that linger long after reading. A scene of appalling sexual torture from Johan in the opening chapters made me realise that Mr Russell isn’t scared to throw a screaming taboo in our faces, and ensured I kept my guard up for the rest of the book. This novel should appeal to fans of Richard Laymon and Bryan Smith, carrying a similar vibe in character, theme and the matter-of-fact prose, though perhaps without quite that heady level of violent lust.
There’s a degree of substance here too. The plight and the treatment of the homeless is touched upon, and also what it means to be truly different. Realistic dialogue and complex relationships between the characters – especially Nat and Simon – keep the human drama elements moving along nicely.
Being picky, I have a couple of buts regarding character motivation. Too often, Nat wandered around the menacing streets alone and got herself into terrible trouble. While I understand that she has a spontaneous and headstrong nature, it just didn’t quite add up for somebody generally in possession of common sense.
Another perplexing why? moment occurs when the sewer is being invaded. One of the more astute but physically vulnerable family members reveals himself to the gang for no apparent reason other than theatre, and pointlessly places himself in mortal peril. There’s also a strange lack of respect for the danger of firearms on more than one occassion.
But “Mother’s Boys” is an entertaining read, and once it kicks off, is difficult to put down. Greyzone morality stops us from relaxing too much, and humanity comes from where one might not expect it. The breathless showdown is a whopping 80 pages and I’m not going to let on as to whether it’s happy, bleak or finishes on a wry punchline. I tried to guess and was wrong, so I suggest you have fun doing the same.
Although I wouldn’t classify this book as extreme, the moments of ugly sadism mean it’s not for everybody. I’ll certainly never look at a cheesegrater the same way again. But it’s a tightly crafted story and if you like a bit of internal conflict with your subterranean violence, I think you’ll enjoy it.