Let’s just get this established right up front: Brian Kirk is a hell of a writer. He’s a gifted storyteller, but what’s more, he has mastered some of the subtler tools of horror. His characters are grounded and realistic, and his grasp of voice is perhaps his greatest gift, one that, incidentally, is also Stephen King’s secret weapon. When Kirk writes dialogue it’s crisp and lively, and when he brings us inside a character’s head (at one point, not to give too much away, quite literally) it feels rich and human. Kirk and King are both, I suspect, fantastic listeners, given their skill in evocation and the fleshing out of fictional persons.
Will Haunt You (Flame Tree Press, 2019) is Brian Kirk’s second novel. His first, We Are Monsters, received a Bram Stoker Award nomination for Superior Achievement in a First Novel, and his fiction has appeared in numerous anthologies and publications. Haunt is the story of a heavy metal musician / commercial jingle writer and regretful family man who is drawn into a sadistic conspiracy when he reads a book. Kirk frames the novel by warning readers that they themselves run the risk of being sucked into the story by reading it. It’s a fun narrative device, and one that I’ve seen a few times before. My favorite horror metanarrative will always be Mister B. Gone, which is both bitingly funny and horrific, and is one of Clive Barker’s best books. Will Haunt You, on the other hand, eschews irony and satire in favor of something much less appealing: a recovery narrative.
Alcoholics Anonymous, the cult that Bill W. started in 1935, has made more inroads into American society than Scientology or astrology, despite being based in as much science and evidence as those belief systems. Imagine living in a world where your sentencing for a DUI or drug charge was based on your astrological chart, or a world where the public health response to our opiate crisis was based on advice obtained from an Ouija board. Well, imagine no more: you’re already living in it. AA and other 12-step programs, despite having no hard evidence or good statistical data to back them up, have so penetrated the American understanding of addiction and sobriety that they’re routinely part of sentencing and public health policy.
Brian Kirk, like Stephen King, writes very convincingly about addiction because he’s lived it. He also, like King and countless other authors, strongly endorses AA and the 12-step framework of recovery in his fiction, which is absolutely his right. Furthermore, I’m glad that Kirk and King and others have gotten clean, AA or no AA, and nobody can take that away from them. However, 12-step programs in these authors’ stories are not treated like religion or ideology, but as gritty realism – the “hard truths” of addiction, if you will, and that’s nonsense.
Now, again, Kirk has every right to get sober via the 12 steps if he so chooses, just like he has every right to be a religious believer (and there’s some of that in Will Haunt You, too, by the way). But by basing some of the emotional resonance of his book on those assumptions, Kirk shuts some of us out, and that’s too bad. Haunt is a compelling, harrowing, and well-paced story, and a demonstration of Kirk’s skill as an author that indicates that he doesn’t need a rotted skeleton like a recovery narrative on which to hang the meat of his tale. It’s fully capable of ambulating sans a tiresome arc of bad behavior, “rock bottom,” and all of the confessional self-help nonsense that follows. When you subtract that stuff, his writing crackles with energy, and his imagination is both lively and as demented as one could wish for in a spinner of morbid narratives. Will Haunt You is, overall, an exceptional second novel, and it will be interesting to see what he does next.
(NOTE: If you or someone you love is struggling with substance abuse or addiction, there are absolutely ways to get sober and manage your mental health that don’t involve faith-based abstinence. You can find tips on choosing a program here, or you can call 1-800-682-HELP.)