(Full discretion, I acted as editor on this book)
Good horror doesn’t rely on the monster. How many horror movies have you seen get panned because all the characters were basically unlikeable and existed only to act as fodder for the monster’s kill count? That’s not horror so much as it is spectacle. It’s a valid enough form of entertainment, but to me, horror at its best makes its characters relatable. You need to want to see them live on some level or the horror they face is essentially pointless.
One Must Kill Another starts with a very human and everyday problem and throws it up against an existential horror, creating an impossible choice. It is about a broken Hollywood family that should have it made. The mother, Kimberly Savage, is a famous action star. The father, Matty, is a screenplay writer. And Rebecca is their energetic daughter with an active imagination.
As the book opens, we see this family on its last thread at their cabin getaway, desperately hoping to reconnect. But Rebecca is getting too old for children’s games, Kimberly comes to terms with the fact that there really nothing left between her and Matty, despite his best efforts. Matty continues living in denial.
Then we catch up with them thirteen years later. The mother has continued box office success but has never achieved the critical success she craves with her work. The father hasn’t sold anything in years and has let himself go physically. And the daughter is still trying to recover from both a literally and figuratively scarring childhood.
They are then given a chance at reconciliation, back at the same cabin getaway where their family fell apart. And that’s when the supernatural element is introduced.
I don’t want to give away too many details at this point, but basically they encounter a maniacal force that threatens to kill all of them unless its ultimatum is met: two can leave the woods alive, but only after they kill the third.
Now, if you weren’t invested in any of these characters, the story might play out as a cat-and-mouse story of hunting and attempted murder. But this was once a family, and despite being torn apart there was love there before.
But there is also hate. Rebecca has many reasons for hating both her mother and her father. Her anger and feelings of betrayal run deep, but she also has her own reasons for wanting to forgive.
And there is desperation. Matty is so lonely he would do anything to get Kimberly back. He also wants to connect with his daughter, but what if she’s no longer the little girl he remembered?
And there is pragmatism. Kimberly was the one who hoped to bring her family back together, but she has always been a survivor who has had to make tough choices.
The entity they face develops as the story progresses. Its motivations at first seem arbitrary, even random. But we eventually see the underlying consistency as they learn more about it.
Marcus Alexander Hart uses an interesting writing technique to tell this story. The present switches between Matty and Rebecca’s POVs in alternating chapters, while their past is told through Kimberly’s perspective. These changing perspectives and flashbacks are key to making the three characters relatable. You learn why Kimberly resents Matty, why Matty misses Kimberly, why Rebecca hates her mom and feels abandoned by her dad. Why Matty no longer sees his little girl in Rebecca, and so on.
Each of the characters are relatable, but they aren’t always likeable. And that’s fine. You don’t have to like everything about a character to root for them. Each of the characters is deeply flawed in their own way, but never in a way that you’re ever rooting against them. You understand the pain they feel and how they got to the way they are. More importantly, you hope they can get past their internal demons just as much as the ones surrounding the house.
I should also point out that Hart isn’t afraid to be hella funny when the situation calls for it. Despite the scenario and the horrible choices being faced, he knows that horror without levity can be draining. And the humor isn’t random, either. It often comes from the very same character flaws that are driving the drama, making it feel natural and real.
That to me is the key to a compelling horror or suspense story. Hart’s style reminds me of some of the better Stephen King stories out there, when the scenario he sets up is compelling, yet also simple. He puts his characters into a trap and sees if they can puzzle their way out of it. But at the end of the day it’s the characters themselves that keep you turning the pages.
Marcus Alexander Hart talks about working as a telemarketer
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Originally Published in KODT #256