Dan Wells is a monstrous writer. And, although he says, “I am not a serial killer,” I don’t believe him.
He has the same tendencies all serial killers have: he’s obsessive, compulsive, may be sociopathic, and he has a vivid imagination. I have been accused of the same tendencies, so I know of which I speak.
But Dan Wells created rules to keep the serial killer trapped inside him. He doesn’t harm animals, does not start fires, says nice things about people instead of thinking bad thoughts, does not think of people as “it,” refrains from following or stalking people, does not make threats, and leaves when threatened. Those are good rules, really. But they are hard to keep.
John Wayne Cleaver, Wells’ teenaged protagonist, has the first name of John Wayne Gacy and the same last name of an instrument of death (which is also the same last name as a fictional television character from the long-forgotten past). Meat the Cleavers (heh heh). They’re a nice normal family (heh heh). Except for their son (heh heh).
I’m Not a Serial Killer and the subsequent Mr. Monster and I don’t Want to Kill You read like young adult novels. That’s probably because the protagonist is a young adult still in high school, there is no gratuitous or explicit sex anywhere in the novels, and graphic descriptions of actual violence is kept to the bare minimum. The conflicts are those of a typical high school boy (demanding and over-protective mother, girls and other boys who think he’s too nerdy and anti-social—which he is because he’s a sociopath—an equally-nerdy best friend, and a hopeless crush on a girl named Brooke). Only John Wayne Cleaver doesn’t fantasize about bedding Brooke. He fantasizes about killing her.
And John Wayne Cleaver’s demons are real and not metaphorical.
The Hollow City (TOR Books, ISBN 978-0-7653-6871-3, $7.99, November 2013) reads as well as the John Wayne Cleaver trilogy and offers insights the other books do not. It’s worth a read. But it’s not the same as a John Wayne Cleaver novel without Cleaver himself.
Next of Kin is a tantalizing look at the new John Wayne Cleaver series that begins with The Devil’s Only Friend (TOR Books, ISBN 978-0765380678, $14.99, June 2015). This is a more grown-up John Wayne Cleaver (though still an impulsive teen), and Wells has also matured as an author with a few more books under his belt. Next of Kin is told from the viewpoint of Elijah Sexton, one of the demon monsters Cleaver now hunts. Author Wells deliberately makes Elijah, like Mr. Crowley, a sympathetic character. Elijah rejects his basic nature in order to recapture his humanity. Is John capable of doing the same?
Elijah Sexton reappears in The Devil’s Only Friend, only now we see Elijah through John Wayne Cleaver’s eyes. Cleaver has left Clayton for the big city (ok, not the Big Apple but a fictional mid-sized midwestern city) where he is part of an elite FBI team assigned to hunt and destroy demons. Brooke is still alive, but she is possessed by a demon. Brooke reveals that the demons are actually a group of 10,000 year old humans—called either the “Gifted” or “the Withered”, depending on how they view themselves—who each exchanged one element of their essential humanity for the promise of eternal life. They volunteered to give up being entirely human to gain the powers of a god.
The entire series is brilliant, and it’s extremely well-written. Who is the hunted and who is the hunter? What twists and turns will complicate John Wayne Cleaver’s life next? The Devil’s Only Friend is a fast-paced supernatural thriller worth reading.