My original THE HAPPY MAN: A TALE OF HORROR audiobook review and many others can be found at Audiobook Reviewer.
In the opening moments of Eric C. Higgs’s The Happy Man: A Tale of Horror, we learn of a murder – the Marsh family has been shot dead next door. We’re told this by Charles Ripley, whose first-person account gives us insight into the San Diego neighborhood he inhabits. The victims next door are not the only murders this neighborhood has seen recently, and Ripley recounts the events leading up to this penultimate act of violence. In fact, strange things have been brewing ever since the Marshes moved in…
Outside of his marriage, Ripley doesn’t have a lot of friends and few men he can connect with. He quickly bonds with the newly arrived Ruskin Marsh, and their wives form a fast friendship. As Ripley and Marsh become better acquainted with each other, Charles is introduced to a very rare work of writing from the sexual libertine Marquis de Sade. Entranced by Marsh’s own sexual exploits and lack of inhibitions, Ripley soon finds his own constraints diminishing and begins straying into extramarital affairs and, soon enough, darker exploits encouraged in de Sade’s writings.
Narrated by Matt Godfrey, The Happy Man is a slow-burn work of suburban horror that finely balances placidity with hair-raising, horrifying drama. This is a well-crafted work of psychosexual drama, and Godfrey’s reading of the material captures the feel of a neighborhood friend telling you a crazy story. At only a bit over 5 hours long, Godfrey keeps the narrative moving along nicely. Higgs, meanwhile, keeps the work grounded, and the moments of horror are never implausible or outlandish. Higgs earns each of his twists and turns by giving us believable characters and a pot-boiler narrative that slowly builds toward the inevitable.
Written in 1985, and recently reissued by Valancourt Books, The Happy Man taps into the anxiety of The Other with its themes of sexual promiscuity, casual drug use, fear of immigrants, and the rise of the Christian Right and their idea of what constitutes family values. While this latter is never overtly mentioned, given the period Higgs was writing in I can’t help but feel like much of this book is a response to the political climate surrounding it. Marsh is very much a hedonistic figure, the kind of guy Nancy Reagan would encourage you to Just Say No! to, and his arrival to this suburban neighborhood threatens to destroy everything his fellow yuppies hold dear, upsetting the balance of their perfectly coiffed all-American lifestyles. With its themes of racism and the sexual objectification of women, The Happy Man is very much a product of the 1980s, yet much of horrors its reacting to, and certainly expounding upon, still feel topical today. Higgs takes all the fears of 80s Evangelicalism and runs with them toward their worst-case finale – the destruction of families at the hands of an outsider. It’s telling, though, that while Mexican immigrants are often blamed for some of the seedier aspects of this white collar, upper-crust San Diego subdivision, the root cause of their problems lie much, much closer to home. Perhaps, in between the moments of eroticism and shocking violence, Higgs was trying to tell us something after all.
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