Exit Lives
by Jamel Gross
BookVenture Publishing

"The tortured should not dream.
Daydreams, nightmares, and illusions
Generate a hellish reality."

Troubled Luke becomes a suspect when his grandparents die mysteriously. To avoid the police—and the memories of his dysfunctional family—he decides to leave the country with his wife, Mary Beth. When their Cadillac almost crashes on the way to the airport, a stranger named Dave gives them a lift. As they drive on, strange encounters, fractured flashbacks, and grisly murders ominously connect them to Leather, a serial killer on the prowl.

Gross delves deep inside a killer's psychology in this short horror fiction. Using Luke's disturbing experiences with his abnormal family, Gross focuses on the key elements that contribute to a potential criminal's violent instincts, delusions, and neuroses. These include the distorted perceptions of his insane mother, the religious fanaticism of his grandmother, the bizarre actions of his abusive father, and Luke's own insecurities. The only hope in Luke's inner darkness is his loving wife Mary Beth, but even she sometimes chooses Dave over Luke, thus making Luke question her loyalty. Her love for Dave's hacksaw and his perverted tales might reflect her own instability or Luke's overactive imagination.

Gross tricks the reader at each turn by blending the increasingly unreliable narration of the pill-popping Luke with the unnatural actions and dialogues of Mary Beth and Dave. Suspense builds up at a high speed as Dave introduces himself as Leather, and the audience fears that Luke and his wife are now victims of a serial killer. But then, Dave's stories of his family, the psychiatric ward, and murders seem to be uncannily similar to the life of Luke, thereby hinting that Dave and Luke may be different personalities of the same man. Though Leatherface of Texas Chainsaw Massacre seems to have inspired the creation of Leather (a.k.a. Dave), Gross has made him animalistic, vicious, and proud of his actions. To show the extent of his insanity, depravity and cannibalism are depicted in Leather's tales of murder. These include a hand that eats Nate alive, Mary Beth's discussion with Leather regarding frying Luke, Dave's idea of the Rodney Head Drop soup, the murders of Florence and Louise, and the taste of dead fetus. Furthermore, the narration of his army experience in Palestine alerts the reader to how extreme violence and shock can induce psychosis.

The dream-like quality of the narration, along with subtle time lapses, makes every situation, dialogue, and character undependable, attracting the reader to solve this open-ended murder puzzle. Preceding short poems perfectly capture the soul of each chapter, while the emotional, disconnected narration of Luke captures the intensity of a killer's dark agony. The overall tone is grim and sinister, balanced precariously on the shoulders of the rude, monstrous Dave/Leather and the poetic, fragile Luke. Though the killer's aspiration to be "in a better place" attempts to evoke the reader's sympathy, his inner desire to also eat his wife, Mary Beth, pushes him further into a psychotic corner of no return. When Dr. Gemini—the psychiatrist and only character who can save Luke from himself—apparently admits failure in the end, Luke/Leather becomes a lost cause, eliciting the reader's helplessness. The strongest appeal of this novel comes from the way Luke faces his personal demons. This is a genuinely shocking horror, with delicate breaths of poetry.

Return to USR Home