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Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones by Micah Dean Hicks4 stars
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Usually, when horror fiction wants to portray the collapse of society, it goes big, with monumental apocalyptic epics like Stephen King’s The Stand or Robert McCammon’s Swan Song offering up humanity’s last hurrah on a Biblical scale. But the reality will probably be a lot less grandiose. Slouching towards armageddon, you might say. In his debut novel, Micah Dean Hicks delivers an ambitious, allegorically rich tale in a tight, 300-page package. On the surface a story about a haunted city, Hicks turns Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones into a metaphor for the socioeconomic collapse of the American industrial heartland and the deep sense of personal disconnection that comes from loss. Eerie and often heart-wrenchingly tragic, it reads as if China Miéville and J.G. Ballard collaborated on a reboot of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.

Our setting is the town of Swine Hill. Its real name is something slightly different. But the name has stuck, because of Pig City, the slaughterhouse and meat-packing plant that has been the main job provider for generations. But the town is in decline, a jungle of empty storefronts and abandoned homes. And this is because of all the ghosts.

They’re everywhere, haunting and possessing everything: buildings, machinery, random objects, even people. The remaining human inhabitants of the town stay either because they see no opportunities for them anywhere else, or perhaps because they’re tied to their ghosts. These specters are more pitiful than scary. They don’t move on because they’re mostly just lonely and afraid of whatever great unknown lies beyond. They cling to the routines they knew in life in their desperation to remain anchored to the world, and they cling to people, for better or worse.

Our human protagonists belong to one of the Swine Hill’s few African-American families. Young adult daughter Jane is possessed by a friendly ghost who’s almost like a psychic roommate, reading the minds of the people around Jane. In a more benign scenario, Jane’s ghost might be seen as a kind of guardian angel, though she’s really just a scared young girl. Jane’s teenage brother Henry is host to a spirit that’s a kind of mad genius engineer, taking over Henry’s mind completely, sometimes for weeks at a time, when it starts building things like the family’s household robot. Their mother’s ghost is such a desperately lonely entity that it makes her entire body hot to the touch, so hot that physical contact causes serious burns. And finally, their father, the only one of them not personally haunted, wanders the town like a homeless zombie, as if there’s some piece of him just missing. As it turns out, this is literally true.

The book makes it clear to us right from the jump that it’s following the rules, so to speak, of weird fiction more than anything else. The ghosts are treated as nothing especially abnormal. Jane just puts up with them in her job at the supermarket. Nor is there any explanation offered for how it’s possible for Henry’s ghost to just build literally anything. We’re in a place where the strange is no longer strange. But there is an awareness of a past in which it all wasn’t this way, a past in which Jane and Henry had a regular family and home life. There’s so much about this world to fix.

This is where the narrative, rooted in Hicks’ compassionate feeling for his characters, spins their lives into tragedy. Everything Jane and Henry do to try to help themselves, their family, their town, just seems to make things worse. Jane has a boyfriend, Trigger, possessed by the younger brother whom he accidentally shot while on a hunting trip, and who has had to live with not only that but the resentment of his father. Henry’s school friend Bethany is cursed by spirits who have made her such an unbeatable athlete that she’s earned only the contempt of the student body. Jane and Henry’s attempts to heal their friends only create bigger problems, to put it mildly.

But the biggest catastrophe is about to impact the entire town. Somehow, under the influence of his ghost, Henry has managed to create a race of pig/human hybrids to take over operations at Pig City. Led by the intimidating but gentle Hogboss, the pigmen are quickly hired on by the parent company to replace all the human workers, with plans in place to transfer them to plants in other cities eventually. Some of them will even slaughter themselves. Hicks uses the pigs to represent fear of economic displacement, whether by mechanization or low-wage immigrant workers. The citizens of the town target the pigs for hatred and violence, though the pigs themselves really want to understand and integrate into human society. The town’s ruthlessness is visited most heartbreakingly upon Hogboss’s son Dennis, presented as a pure innocent who befriends the ghost of a dancing girl at the school. Also, because Jane and Henry are among the town’s few black youths, the grim effects of racism are never far. The current state of — shall we say — tension between young black men and the police is an element Hicks does not overlook.

Hicks spares us nothing in the way of emotional trauma as the lives of these characters spiral out of control. Yet underlying it all is the message that what any of us is really looking for is a sense that we matter, that we’re wanted and needed, that we have some connection based on kindness. There is a sense of hope when it’s all over, a sense that there’s something better waiting on the other side of our life’s current woes, if we’re willing. Break the Bodies, Haunt the Bones is an unexpectedly great work, and it may be the best weird horror of 2019. It’s a book that nearly broke me, and one that is definitely going to haunt me.