Kind Nepenthe by Mathew V. Brockmeyer lives up to the claims on its cover in every way. This tale is dark, macabre, terrifying, and suspenseful. And it takes place in California (of course). This is a novel I highly recommend and give it five plus stars with a caveat; it only gets that rating for a selected audience. This is not your YA genre. But for those who like the weird and far out there, this is it, you have arrived. Brockmeyer is very adept at weaving plot and character development with implications and subtle suggestions of what is to come to produce an excellent, fast moving read. With a novel that contains so many dark and twisted characters, the absence of salacious, gratuitous sex is amazing. Whatever sex there is arrives mostly by implication readers have to take responsibility for and look to their inner self-censors.
This novel could survive if it were completely plot driven. It just wouldn’t be as good. With characters like these to lead us through their development as the story moves along, the tale is excellent. When readers think of character development in isolation (why would they want to do that?) they might think of characters with a flaw or those that meet a conflict and by successfully coping, they get better. Not with this novel. If anything, characters start out at a disadvantage and become increasingly corrupt. There is a catchphrase I believe yet to become trite “Nobody gets out of this thing alive.” That applies here for the most part. Any survivors wish they were dead. The dead have no opinions. And there are a couple of entities stuck in the middle.
Rebecca Hawthorne is a central character and is probably likable to most readers. She has agreed to live in isolation in a remote area of California (there are many of these) with her boyfriend and five-year-old daughter, Megan, while they work as a crew attending to a hydroponic facility for growing marijuana. We have an instant negative reaction from the anti-drug crowd toward Rebecca. Not only is she growing drugs, she is exposing her daughter to improper social values. But wait. Rebecca is committed to the annihilation of her carbon footprint. She eats all organic foods. She scours the woods for edible plants that she can use in her cooking. And she home schools her daughter in the names of these herbs and roots along with their edible and medical properties. So Rebecca’s character is now resurrected. And Megan is precocious (of course).
Calendula is Rebecca’s partner. He is not Megan’s father but that is another story and plays a very minor part in this one. Calendula is also not the real name of Mark, who grew up in a wealthy family and, like many who had the benefits of money without having to earn it, turned against his parents opting instead for a new-age profession of permaculture design. Rebecca was completely in love with Calendula as a result of his role as support for her in a war she waged against Starbucks. This event hooked me from the start of the book. Rebecca and Calendula are not dedicated ideologically driven druggies; they just want to get enough money to buy their own land away from civilization and pursue their ecologically driven dreams for a better world. So they work for a couple of growing seasons for Coyote. (Even the names in this novel are good). This is a nice family grouping working their way to an independent future. We should be proud of them. Except for the drugs.
Down the road a bit is a rather loose group of folks that define “redneck.” And they are driven by a love of drugs and the riches to be obtained from dealing in them. Mostly, we don’t like these characters but even here there is something to be admired. Patriarch Diesel Dan (gotta love these names) has been in and out of jail for most of his life. Not a person with criminal intent, he performed most of his crimes while under the influence of alcohol, drugs, or a combination of the two. Which is why he always got caught. But now he was out and determined to make amends to his son, DJ, who he had almost never seen. Dan would also stay off drugs, except for the amounts of meth that he knew he could control. DJ is willing to accept amends from Diesel, amends that come in the form of an overhauled truck, several firearms, and occasional drugs. But DJ is grown up now, enough to impregnate his seventeen-year-old bride. He loved her, the two had dated since she was fourteen and he was looking forward to becoming a father. He would not be the absent father Diesel Dan had been. DJ still harbored a lot of resentment which he masked most of the time.
Diesel Dan came into ownership of land by inheritance. He sold some of it, a part containing the camp where drugs were being produced, to Coyote. Money was still owed Dan but he was willing to wait. DJ wanted to see the money paid. Maybe he could use some of it a stake in a future business. But Coyote might have had the first name of Wiley. He delayed payment time over time, frustrating DJ. Direct action was needed.
So we have drugs, money, greed, and two main contentious groups. Violent actions are a possibility. And all of this is the plot of the novel, interesting all by itself. But then we have the contentious spirits. There is Spider (dead) and “the drowned boy” (also dead). These two would influence and gradually take over everybody in the living world. Rebecca, Calendula, Megan, Coyote, Diesel Dan, DJ, Katie (DJ’s wife), and Amber (Dan’s wife) would all be seduced and their actions subverted to fulfill the desires of Spider and Drowned Boy. Spider loved to kill people and Drowned Boy was lonely.
The novel has too many things going on for any detailed character review. Readers must explore this for themselves. I think it would make an excellent book club discussion project. It might make a great movie but would be censored in most countries where I travel.