Review: Creature by Hunter Shea

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My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Hunter Shea knows all about horror. An author with a score of books to his name, podcaster for Monster Men and The Final Guy, and writer of Video Vision posts for Cemetery Dance, all point toward a man who has lived and breathed the horror genre since he was a boy. He knows and writes about cryptids, ghosts, crazed killer animals, and plenty more in-between. But he also knows about real horror, true horror, like when your body begins to fail and suffer from a handful of maladies, any of which on their own could be fatal, the person slowly degenerating into a life that is more misery and pain than anything else.

Kate suffers from a host of autoimmune disorders and lives in a state of chronic pain. Her joints slip out of their sockets with painful regularity and a mason jar filled to the brim with her daily regiment of pills sits on the nightstand beside the bed she only rarely leaves. Her husband, Andrew, is her caretaker, reliant on his dayjob to provide them with the medical benefits that help keep her alive, although the specter of chemotherapy is an ever-present threat, as are worries of emergency surgeries and cardiac arrest.

Kate doesn't get to enjoy her life very much. Mostly, her only company consists of her small dog, Buttons, and classic black-and-white movies on television or her computer tablet. Frustrated by his lack of time with her, and a growing dissatisfaction with work, Andrew takes a leave of absence and rents a lakeside cottage in Maine for the two of them to enjoy and while away their summer. He hopes the change of scenery will help, and that, just maybe, Kate can enjoy some sun and sand.

Their arrival, unfortunately, doesn't exactly go as planned. There's something in the woods surrounding their summer retreat. Strange, violently loud animal cries awaken them in the middle of the night, along with the noise of rocks pelting the house as whatever is out there attempts to lure them outside. What began as a hope for escape soon grows into a dire struggle for survival as the creature in the woods, and the monsters within Kate's own body, threaten to kill them.

Right from the very beginning of Creature it's clear that Shea has plenty of first-hand experience dealing with severe, chronic medical disorders. As it happens, his own wife suffers from afflictions similar to Kate's, and Creature oftentimes feels like a highly autobiographical work. It's honest and unflinching in its depictions of struggle from the perspective of both the afflicted and the partner cum caretaker. When they were dating, neither Kate nor Andrew expected their marriage to take the direction it has, and there's an ever-present sense of loss over the things that could, and should, have been. But there's also an overriding sense of love and compassion for one another, a love that has borne them through the worst of things and will carry them along no matter how grim things get. They manage to carve out moments of happiness, but still bicker and fight when emotional currents run high.

Kate and Andrew aren't a perfect couple, but they work well with what they've been given, and Shea does an excellent job portraying the reality of their relationship, warts and all. He bleeds onto each and every page, imbuing this couple and their shared life with a perfect sense of well-lived in realism. When drawing so heavily on personal experience, once might be inclined to glamorize the characters involved or tack on overly saccharine sentimentalities, but I never got that sense here. Kate and Andrew never struck me as being drawn in any way other than completely and utterly honest, and oftentimes to heartbreaking effect. Kate's disorders are awfully severe and it's impossible to not sympathize with her constant ordeals, and Andrew's by extension.

By now, you're probably wondering about the titular creature. I've spent an awful lot of time here discussing the people, but not the monster. Monsters, of course, are Shea's bread and butter! I can only say, have no worry, because Creature's creature is absolutely present, but oftentimes in omnipresent ways. We hear the creature and see the aftermath of its visits for a good long while before we're presented with it in a fully in-your-face appearance on the page. Creature is a slow-burn, one that constantly builds its way toward a grand climax, and Shea meticulously places the various pieces of his frightfest with careful deliberation.

Shea is more widely known for his fun, gloriously violent, B-movie inspired creature feature romps. Creature is a bit of a departure from stories like Megalodon in Paradise or Jurassic, Florida, but readers who came to Shea by way of We Are Always Watching will have a grand idea of what to expect here. This isn't a mile a minute gorefest, but it packs in a number of scares that are absolute powerhouses thanks to their authenticity and realism. Creature is a slower, characters-first work of horror, but make no mistake, Shea certainly delivers on the horror and in a number of particularly gut-churning, all too-human ways.

[Note: I received an advance reading copy of this title from the publisher, Flame Tree Press.]

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Michael Patrick Hicks

Michael Patrick Hicks is the author of the science fiction novels Convergence, an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award 2013 Quarter-Finalist, and Emergence. His work has appeared in several anthologies, and he has written for the websites Graphic Novel Reporter and Audiobook Reviewer. In between compulsively buying books and adding titles that he does not have time for to his Netflix queue, he is hard at work on his next story.

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