Review: Darkest Suburbia, Suburban Monsters, by Christopher Hawkins

Brevity is both the soul of wit and the spirit of horror. A horror novel carries its own pleasures, but shorter tales of terror often punch well above their weight. Christopher Hawkins neatly explores the format through 13 short stories, ranging from the gruesome to the amusing, in his new anthology Suburban Monsters.

Suburban Monsters demonstrates all the traditional Gothic lit elements: murder, mystery, sinister places, curses, monstrosities, sin, and shame—albeit against a backdrop of strip malls, split levels, and freshly mown lawns. A Chicago suburbanite himself, it’s unsurprising Hawkins works in the Suburban Gothic sub-genre (which likely segued from the small-town frights purveyed by American authors like Shirley Jackson, Ray Bradbury, Rod Serling, and others). Once places where naught happened, suburbs are as prone to inhabitation by psycho killers, vampires, ghosts, and unspeakable beasties as any tomb, castle, village, cave system, or remote island. Yes, even horror is subject to gentrification and homogenization.

Christopher Hawkins

While Hawkins' collection dwells (mostly) in the 'burbs, he doesn’t say where exactly. It may well be that tales like “Storms of the Present,” “Poppy,” and “Shadowman” take place in Worth, Northbrook, or Addison, Illinois. But despite his hometown status, Hawkins is coy about location. We’re left to envision the stories happening in Anytown, or rather Anysuburb, USA. Which lends a little more heft to their horror. He engages in familiar themes—vengeance, body horror, cannibalism, mannequins, childhood dread and parental fear, and others—perhaps made creepier in a Suburban Gothic frame.

From another angle, even the biggest fans of horror eventually reach a point where fictional fears aren’t that scary. In the midst of middle age, one’s pants are unlikely to be even slightly scared off. Growing up and learning the nightmares the real world hosts puts things into perspective. Another handicap: The Twilight Zone and M. Night Shyamalan have spoiled us, making us expectant not just of twist endings, but ones that leave us gasping and aghast. Of course, that hasn’t happened for many of us in a long time—not since we discovered Bruce Willis was dead and stuffed in Norman Bates’ basement the entire time. Unfairly, horror writers have this legacy lingering over them. Regardless, even sans frisson, chills, and a shockaroo denouement, one can still appreciate a good horror tale as long as it’s a tale well told, makes sense, and comes to a satisfactory conclusion. 

Good writers come up with twists, but better ones turn the twist on its head. In most of his tales, Hawkins does this. Just when a story like “Ten and Gone” or “A Candle for the Birthday Boy” seems to be heading in too-familiar direction, Hawkins performs an Immelman. While few live happily ever after (or even live), not all of his protagonists are doomed or even damned in humdrum ways. This may be the first time I’ve encountered a happy(ish) ending in a horror tale about clowns. Color me surprised.

Hawkins has a knack for shifting tone and tropes. His influences seem laid bare without being intrusive. Two tales bring the splatterpunk gore with measured if nauseating descriptions of fluids, fats, and innards—whether spilled or consumed. Other are more of  a slow burn, terror slithering in and slowly working its way into the space behind the reader’s eyes. Having a soft spot for Lovecraftian horror, I was delighted by the unexpected appearance of Aklo in an office space setting. It seems clear that Hawkins enjoys his horror, and likes to share what he’s learned along the way. Great fun, in a sinisterly suburban way.

Suburban Monsters is available at bookstores and through the publisher’s website.

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Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.