Our old friend Wojtek is back with a look at my slasher/horror novel Rabbit Heart. This work of mine is somewhat infamous for its over-the-top sex and violence — so let’s see how Wojtek reacts to it, shall we? Here’s what he had to say:
Being a fan of Barry Reese’s writing, especially his “Sovereign City” stories I was immediately interested in this book, despite it being created before the universe of Lazarus Gray, Dark Gentleman and The Gravedigger really began to fully take shape.
It was probably because the description of “Rabbit Heart” seemed very, very familiar. Let’s see:
Our heroine is a young woman, who gets killed, and then resurrected by some kind of powerful supernatural force, gaining abilities setting her apart from mortal men, and using them to fight evil…
So, I thought that Fiona Chapman must be some kind of proto-Gravedigger, and since she is easily my favorite character in the Sovereign City universe, I knew that I would have to read it. One could say, that I got more than I bargained for…
“Rabbit Heart” is vastly different than anything of Barry Reese’s, that I had read before and since, being a lot darker, violent and brutal. Instead of over-the-top story about a larger than life heroine, we get something that is closer to horror, than a traditional action-adventure one would expect from New Pulp.
Oh, it still has a very Pulp-like vibe, dynamic and detailed action scenes, as well as interesting characters and world building, but if someone expects a safe, PG-13 book like for example “The Adventures of Lazarus Gray” series, then he or she would be rather surprised…
And it probably wouldn’t be a very nice surprise. Because it is not a nice book.
And by that I don’t mean, it’s bad, quite the opposite in fact, but “Rabbit Heart” is clearly not for everyone…
But, let’s start at the beginning.
Our heroine is the woman in her early 20’s named Fiona Chapman. At first glance she is completely average, if rather attractive, and nerdy person.
But this impression is literally dead wrong, as there is a lot of pain and darkness in her past, that affect her even today.
It had all started when she was just four years old, and witnessed her uncle’s suicide. The sight of a relative blowing his brains out with a gun had a profound effect on her psyche, stripping her innocence away, and forcing her to grow up faster than other kids at her age.
As a result Fiona became a loner, who does not like being surrounded with people, and having problems with forming relationships with others, instead surrounding herself with books, which further established her label of “weird girl” in the eyes of her peers.
Our heroine has no problem with having no friends, but her parents are afraid, that their daughter’s problems with other people would have negative impact on her in the future, so they came up with a plan to help her overcome those problems.
Thus, eight-year old Fiona and her family visit a resort known as Camp Sleepaway, where she could meet other kids without the stigma of being “weird girl”, and overcome her social anxiety. This idea is not that bad, but this particular camp has a rather infamous reputation.
In the 50’s it was a hunting ground of a psychopathic serial killer nicknamed “Camp Slayer”, who preyed on the teenagers staying in the camp. Local legend claims, that The Slayer is still there, hidden in his lair, somewhere in the local forest, and occasionally murders people who “trespass” on “his” territory.
Of course nobody rational would believe in immortal psychopath, who lurks In the forest and slays teenagers with his trusty machete, right? Well, problem is, that the legend is very much true…
Fiona learns of this during one of her lonely walks in the forest, when she witnesses Slayer brutally murdering one of the teenage girls from the camp. Monster notices her, and slashes girl’s throat, muttering something cryptic about Fiona supposedly being “like him”.
Unexpectedly some time later our heroine wakes up, somehow still alive, with her wounds mysteriously gone, as if it all was just a dream. Sure enough, when she is found by her parents and camp counselors her tales about being dead are brushed away, as a product of overactive imagination of a child, who saw something horrible.
So, Fiona learns to hide the truth, and pretend that nothing happened, even if she is not the same as before.
She feels some vague sense of emptiness inside herself, and had lost the ability to dream, but somehow became physically stronger than she was, and gained the ability to glance into the minds of other people.
Despite all of that, she keeps her true nature in secret for years, until the day, when a mysterious man delivers a very unusual message to her. It mentions something called “Furious Host”, a term that is historically associated with The Wild Hunt from the old, half-forgotten legends.
Curious, Fiona decides to face her past and return to Camp Sleepaway, face her inhuman killer, and learn the truth. What she would learn, would change her life forever, not necessary for the better…
In the meantime, small town of Milledgeville, Georgia becomes a scene of incredibly violent double murder, that took place on the grounds of the local graveyard.
Two young lovers; Jack and Kim had decided, that their sex life need some… “spicing up”, and decided that graveyard would be a perfect place to achieve that. It turned out to be a very bad idea, because when they are occupied with themselves someone comes to them, brutally kills Jack, and then violently rapes Kim, who dies soon after.
Chief of the local police force, Walter Greene, tries his best to find the murderer, but as it soon turns out, there are no clues that might lead to his identity, other than a fact, that he is a sadistic, cruel monster. Due to the high profile of the case he is hounded by media and local authorities, so
he is understandably frustrated, and wishes for something… anything, that would help him with finding the murderer. And somehow his prayers are answered, albeit in a rather… unusual way.
Famous millionaire, occult expert and amateur detective Ascott Keane appears in Milledgeville, and offers his help to Greene.
While he is just a civilian it should be noted, that he gained some notoriety as a specialist on unusual crimes, something that apparently runs in the family, as his grandfather, also named Ascott Keane was known as Occult Detective, and regularly clashed with a legendary criminal called Doctor Satan in the 30’s and 40’s.
He also claims, that he knows who, or rather what committed the murders on the graveyard. According to Keane the culprit was one of the Furious Host; immortal beings that prey on humanity for centuries. This particular Host is apparently pretending to be a Lich, an undead monstrosity from the old legends.
Chief Greene is of course rather… skeptical after hearing, that criminal he tries to catch is in reality some supernatural monster, but soon enough Keane is proven to be right. Unfortunately it’s not a good thing, as Furious Host are very powerful, and hard to fight, even for a man like Ascott Keane.
As it turns out, he is not a grandson of the legendary Occult Detective, but rather the original Ascott Keane, who, due to various supernatural events he experienced during his battles against Doctor Satan, remained young and vigorous, despite being over hundred years old. Unfortunately due to his vast experience, he is painfully aware, that even his formidable abilities are not enough to defeat one of the Host.
And Fiona Grace is only person who can help him. But would she agree to hunt an immortal monster, when she is confused, and unsure about her own identity?
At first glance, the plot looks like a generic story about a person discovering their hidden superhuman abilities, learning to accept and use them, and using those powers to fight evil, albeit with a darker twist, but it’s a rather misleading impression.
Fiona is not a brave, dashing superheroine filled with unflinching desire to protect the innocent, but a traumatized and more than a little lost young woman, who against her will was given frightening power she was not prepared for, and then was forced to participate in the fight between merciless, inhuman immortals.
Sure, she got a powerful healing factor, vastly enhanced strength and reflexes, superhuman senses etc, but those abilities came with a rather nasty price tag.
As one of the Host, Fiona also got their burning need for copious amounts of sex and violence, as well as a certain predatory mindset, that frightens her quite a bit.
On the other hand, those new abilities of hers give her confidence, and assertiveness she had always lacked, while also being very addictive… Would she be able to cling to her humanity, morality, and remain herself after changing into something that is clearly non-human? And would she even want to do it?
And what about her mentor, Ascott Keane?
In my humble opinion, original Ascott Keane is one of the blandest Pulp heroes ever, essentially fighting our over-the-top villain in a red costume cause he is rich and bored, a direct parallel to Doctor Satan himself. Sure watching him stop masked villain’s nefarious plots was really entertaining, but he lacked the substance to stand on his own as a character.
Not to mention the fact, that due to unchanging status quo he was never allowed to actually capture or kill his nemesis, or even to deduce his secret identity, which made him look rather incompetent as a hero. Sure, he destroyed Satan’s doomsday machines, ruined his plans, and even managed to temporarily kill one of his henchmen, but red-garbed villain had always returned to wreak havoc once more.
Don’t get me wrong, I simply love original stories about Keane and his villainous arch-enemy, but I am also aware of how flawed they were.
I am sure, that Paul Ernst, man responsible for creating one of the most interesting Pulp characters Richard Benson/The Avenger, would eventually manage to flesh out both of them, if he had time, but unfortunately both Keane and his arch-enemy had only managed to appear in eight stories, before fading into relative obscurity.
Fortunately Barry Reese has already used his brand of writer’s magic on Doctor Satan, using him as a sinister antagonist for his numerous heroes, having him cross blades with Max Davies/The Peregrine, and Assistance Unlimited led by Lazarus Gray.
In this interpretation villain in red costume is a lot more threatening, appearing as an actual demonic entity, or at least a high-ranked servant of one, than a bored rich asshole he was in the original Pulps. He is also a lot more subtle, manipulating other villains from the sidelines, or playing mind-games with his enemies, while losing none of his over-the-top theatrical flair.
His motivations were also altered, so while in the classic stories he simply used magic, and super-science to get rich(er), Mr. Reese’s version is a power-hungry, callous sociopath, who looks for the way to enhance his already formidable abilities, and expand boundaries of his knowledge, through use of ancient artifacts, forbidden rituals and so on.
Therefore it comes as no surprise, that Barry Reese’s interpretation of The Occult Detective is also vastly more interesting, than his incarnation from the 30’s.
At first glance he got a really fabulous life, filled with larger than life adventures, thrills and heroic purpose, not to mention the fact, that he somehow became eternally young along the way, enabling him to continue his endless fight against evil.
But when we look a bit deeper, we will see a man, who had witnessed the worst things human mind can imagine, and quite a few things human couldn’t even comprehend, outlived everybody he held dear, and is painfully aware, that despite all the good he’s done, he hadn’t really changed anything.
Sure, he had finally managed to get rid of his nemesis for good, forever freeing humanity from the danger posed by insane genius in horned mask, but countless others had risen to take his place, conducting forbidden rituals, consorting with demons, or simply getting drunk on their own dark power, and despite Occult Detective’s efforts there would always be people like that.
Dashing adventurer who fought Doctor Satan had died long ago, leaving behind a tired, bitter man, who continues his crusade against dark powers, because he has nothing else left in his life…
Sure, he now has a new mission in teaching Fiona to master her formidable powers, and turning her into a tool of justice, but his long, hard life made him a bit detached from the rest of humanity, more calculating and cold, so he has certain secrets from his new “apprentice”, and is unsure if he can really trust one of the Host, making their partnership rather awkward.
But even the most interesting heroes are meaningless, if we don’t have a good, or rather bad, villain for them to fight and defeat. And in “Rabbit Heart” we have one, who is without a doubt one of the vilest, most despicable monsters created by Barry Reese.
Now, Mr. Reese has a real knack for creating interesting bad guys, for example fan-favorite immortal Egyptian sorceress; Princess Femi who regularly clashed with Assistance Unlimited, or his interpretation of the legendary Doctor Fu Manchu, who in the world of Sovereign City is a former mentor and arch-enemy of Max Davies/The Peregrine.
But while they had certain villainous charisma, and motivations we could sometimes relate to, Uhrl, the villain of this story is just a callous murderer, rapist and sadist, that You can’t help to hate, and hope that Fiona and Ascott would tear him to pieces in the most painful way possible for all the crimes he committed.
He takes the form of disfigured white-skinned monstrosity, similar to the liches of legend, which gives him inhuman strength, speed and durability, as well as razor-sharp claws, but this undead body is vulnerable to sunlight, which forces him to hide during the day. He also seems to have a weakness to holy items, which enabled members of the local church to defeat him in the XIX century.
Being unable to destroy one of The Host, they instead bound him to the cemetery itself, trapping him there for eternity, due to his weakness to hallowed ground… Until two young lovers mentioned before desecrated it, which enabled Uhrl to finally free himself, and return to killing, raping, and torturing the innocent.
Things he does are really abhorrent, and make You cringe as You read about them. Actually, this is the first time, when I had to put down the book, and take a short break, because I couldn’t take it anymore… And I am fan of gory B-Movies from 80’s and 90’s, so I though, that I am rather sanitized to violence.
Barry Reese has his way with the words, conjuring a very vivid, and detailed images in his books, but this time I kind of wished he was a bit worse writer, because of things he had shown me in “Rabbit Heart”… As I had warned before, this in no book for the faint of heart.
On the other hand, as I mentioned before, it makes Uhrl very easy to hate, and in turn to cheer on our heroes, as their fight him, so I guess it works rather well…
I also love the whole idea behind Furious Host, because it lets the author to do really interesting things with both our heroes and villains.
I do not want to spoil too much, but basically, all of them take on various Archetypes of killers that exist in human consciousness, evolving and changing alongside they prey.
For example, in the past Huntsmen had used shapes of various legendary monsters, like werewolves, vampires and the so on, like Uhlr does, but as the times had changed, they had learned to be more subtle, while still being extremely deadly.
One of Fiona’s enemies is using Bad Boy Archetype, that is often used in steamy romance novels, that charms women with his good looks, boundless charisma and aura of danger. Only in this case women he meets would not find happiness and fulfillment in his muscular arms, but rather pain, torture and death.
Then we get Killer Next Door Archetype, exemplified by Hannibal Lecter, or Dexter Morgan, a methodical murderer with attention to detail about how his victims would die, intelligent and charming on the outside, but in reality cold and cruel.
The Camp Slasher that our heroine encountered in her childhood is on the other hand inspired by popular slasher movies, like “Friday The 13th”, so we get masked, nigh-invincible, super-strong monster who lives in a dark forest, and preys on sexually promiscuous teens, slaughtering them with his trusty machete.
Fiona herself is an unusual evolution of the Femme Fatale Archetype, one patterned after scantily-clad, over-sexualized, self-confident and aggressive anti-heroines from 90’s comics, like Zealot from “Wild C.A.T.S”, Razor, or Lady Death, that our heroine has jokingly called “a hot piece of ass with a sharp knife”.
All in all, the whole idea for Furious Host, and their Archetypes is really interesting and original, and I would really like to see more of it.
As usual with Mr. Reese we also get some great and dynamic action scenes, though in this case they are also a lot gorier than his usual writing, but it makes sense here.
I mean, we observe battles between superhumanly powerful killing machines, gifted with enhanced durability and healing abilities, so it’s no surprise, that disemboweling, organs being ripped out, gallons of blood, torn limbs, and so on, are a common thing here.
It really helps to capture the raw, inhuman power that The Host possess, but as mentioned before, such graphic violence can be disturbing to some readers.
Numerous sex scenes also have a very raw, organic feel to them, which is not necessary a good thing, since majority of them are violent scenes of rape. I think only one such scene in entire book is not downright unpleasant to read about, and even then it’s not really nice… But then as I mentioned numerous times, “Rabbit Heart” is not a nice book.
And that is basically the main problem with it.
We get interesting and complex characters, some imaginative world building, great if a bit depressing atmosphere, superb “meaty” action scenes, and as always really great writing. But we also get a stunning mix of sex, violence and overall disturbing imagery.
Because of that, some may dismiss “Rabbit Heart” as nothing more as exploitative, overtly violent trashy novel with little real substance, which would be a dead wrong assumption. This novel has real depth to it, and actually makes You think about certain things, but one has to look past all the blood and violence, to actually see it.
For example, one can’t stop to think about how our society became sanitized to violence and evil, considering the fact, that all of “modern” Archetypes used by Furious Host are pop-cultural icons, and enjoy tremendous popularity, like above mentioned Hannibal Lecter, or Jason Voorhees, who are nowadays treated as heroes, not as monsters they really are.
So, I recommend it to all adult readers, who would be able to accomplish that. But if You are looking for something like Barry Reese’s “Sovereign City” stories, then be warned, that “Rabbit Heart” is really very, very different from them.
Thanks for that review, my friend! There are definitely some similarities between Fiona Chapman and Charity Grace — the theme of resurrection and rebirth factors large in many of my works and I definitely agree with you that in many ways Fiona was a test-run for ideas that I later refined for Gravedigger. I’ve had many requests for a sequel and I did actually write about 12,000 words of a second Fiona novel (it was going to be called Starstruck) and I actually got a cover done by Jason Levesque (who did the cover to Rabbit Heart) but I set it aside years ago. I think I kind of like the original novel standing on its own… though you never know when I’ll change my mind!