I’ve been reading horror fiction for enough time to remember at least a few times when a “New Wave” swept through the genre, so I am not at all surprised that the phenomena seems to be happening again. I am not sure that writers like being affiliated with any such movements, but if Ania Ahlborn is considered one, then the latest wave is really going to be worth looking into, because Brother is one powerful novel; disturbing, violent, and as deep and dark as the wild woodland in which it is set. What makes it extra harrowing is that there isn’t even a peep of the supernatural in this chilling novel; all it’s evil takes place in the human heart.
Brother is the story of the Morrow family, as twisted a set of murderers as any, who live in a crooked house in the wilds of Appalachia. Mother Claudine, and the father, Wade, are unrepentant serial killers who send older son Ray, who calls himself Rebel, and younger son Michael out to kidnap girls for their mom to “play” with. Rebel joins in on the killing as well, but it’s Michael’s job to dispose of the girls once they are dead, one he does with joyless efficiency. In fact Michael and sister Misty Dawn seem to exist only as objects for the rest of the family to torment, so much so that Misty, in an act of crushing loneliness tries to seduce Michael, who is both tantalized and too terrified to act. Then Rebel, takes Michael with him to a tiny near-by town, Dahlia, where he has a secret girlfriend. That is where Michael meets Alice, who shows him the small wonders of a forbidden world, like goth rock, big macs, and a movie theatre. At first Michael is too stunned to do much more than stare in bewilderment at this fresh modern girl who seems to offer him a glimmer of hope for a normal life. Rebel, however, alternately bullying and cajoling, tries to prod Michael, who is more his servant than his brother, that the only way to get a girl like Alice is to make her one of the Family, and bring her into the fold.
Even in such a brutal book, Ms. Ahlborn’s characters help drive the narrative. Rebel is so compelling and evil that the power of his personality has collapsed in upon itself, and he is more a black hole than a human. Michael is a whipped dog, with a tiny spark of misplaced loyalty, and a strand of strength that makes his hopes poignant. Misty Dawn simply broke my heart.
The story, unbearably tense, is told mainly in 1980’s, but a handful of flashbacks that deal with Michael’s childhood, and eldest sister Lauralynn, who disappeared to live with Grandma and Grandpa, artfully reveals the underpinnings of the plot, and deftly foreshadows the story’s ending, which was, even in such a tough novel, both shocking and tragic. Ms. Ahlborn’s taut prose does an exceptional job of creating an atmosphere of unending fear and nervousness, as it seems it’s all that Michael can do to get through a day without being beaten or having to steal and kill. It’s really saying something that as twisted as this book was, the end still managed to catch me off guard and leave me breathless. The only thing that bothered me about this book is the thing that makes it so one-of-a-kind. It’s so bleak and unforgiving that although I have said it before I am really saying it now; this book is not for the faint of heart.