Do you like to be scared? Maybe you’ve worked your way through the back-catalogs of Stephen King and Dean Koontz, and now you want to read from a different letter of the alphabet for a while. Or maybe you’re feeling jaded and numb, because all those other horror lists have the same damn books by the same damn authors on them and you’d really appreciate a little variety. Since we’ve entered the witching month of October, why not let us take you on a guided tour of hell? Keep your hands and feet inside the article at all times, and if you feel faint, just tell yourself: “It’s only a book…it’s only a book…” This week’s entry is “Survivor” by J.F. Gonzalez.
If I had to sum up everything you need to know about “Survivor” in ten words, those words would be: ‘Wrath James White gave it 4 out of 5 stars.’ If you read last week’s entry on “The Resurrectionist”, it should come as no surprise to you that judging by Goodreads’ rating system, Mr. White “really liked it” given the subject matter of this disturbing-as-all-hell 2004 novel.
Lawyers Lisa and Brad Miller are on their way to a romantic weekend getaway in San Simeon, California, where Lisa plans to pop the good news. After five years trying to conceive and endless fertility treatments, something worked. Lisa’s pregnant. She couldn’t be happier…until they’re pulled over on the highway by a cop who claims Brad was driving recklessly. Arrested late in the afternoon, Brad’s bound to spend the weekend in the local jail until the judge hears (and dismisses) the case Monday morning. Weekend ruined, Lisa retreats to the local motel to brood. She and Brad are in Family, not Criminal, law, so all she can do is contact Brad’s parents, call a criminal defense attorney friend from home, and wait. Just when things can’t seem to get worse, the door to her motel room is kicked in and she finds herself a kidnapping victim.
Someone has paid an awful lot of money to get beautiful, young, vibrant Lisa Miller as the star of their own personal movie. But this is no Hollywood dream-come-true production–the director plans to take this one all the way. Lisa’s co-star is the sociopathic, leather-clad, testosterone-fueled Animal. And for a princely sum of cash, Animal’s job is to make sure Lisa doesn’t survive her direct-to-video debut.
“Survivor” is what the film 8MM could have been (and what A Serbian Film actually was): a dark, terrifying excursion into the world of a subject that is all too plausible and yet has never been found to exist. Killing people on camera for the purpose of sexual excitement is known as “snuff”. Gonzalez’s novel predates Saw, Hostel, and all the other mainstays of the so-called ‘torture porn’ genre of horror. It’s a ferocious, unrelenting look at a subject we all want to be fictional, but if there’s anything we’ve learned over the years it’s that if one human mind can conceive of it, another person can carry it out.
There’s no way to sugarcoat it. “Survivor” is gruesome and not for the faint of heart. It’ll also never be confused with great literature, as most of the characters are shallow, two-dimensional beings who exist to fill the roles as Gonzalez cast them. That isn’t to say the book is bad, but you’re not reading it to divine some moral lesson or tease out a new way of understanding the world. In “Survivor”, people are assholes and sometimes the only way to survive is to become an even greater asshole. If you don’t take a break from reading this one at least once over the course of its 284 pages, I question your humanity.
That said, the major point of contention for virtually everyone reading this story is a decision that Lisa makes in a desperate bid to secure her freedom. Obviously I’m not going to reveal it, but if there’s anything that makes this book ripe for discussion among fans, it’s this question of, “How far is too far?” If there’s any truth revealed in the text, it’s Gonzalez’s belief that it’s a decision none of us can ever truly decide until we’re placed in it ourselves. Often in life what we think we’d do and what we actually do are two different things, and never is this more clear than when we’re forced to pick between two awful extremes.
The only reason I can think Wrath James White didn’t give this book five stars is that it ends on a far happier note than “The Resurrectionist”. Of course pretty much anything short of complete nuclear apocalypse ends on a happier note than “The Resurrectionist”, so…
One final note, there are several versions of this book out there: a short story released in 2002 entitled “Maternal Instinct”, the 2004 edition published by Midnight Library which was an expansion of that story, a 2006 paperback edition published by Leisure, and the 2011 paperback and ebook put out by Deadite Press. Make sure you pick up the 2011 release from Deadite Press as opposed to the 2006 Leisure edition. Leisure’s version suffered from a terrible editing job, while the text of the Deadite publication is the “Author’s Preferred Version” which corrects most of these mistakes. Gonzalez himself died in 2014, so out of respect, make sure you get the right book. It’s the one we used for our cover thumbnail.
Most disturbing scene: Despite the entire concept of “Survivor” being one disturbing scene after another, what happens in chapter 17 is easily the most disturbing of all. That said, relating what happens in chapter 17 would be a massive spoiler so I’m not going to talk about it. Once you discard all the scenes of torture and sadism, there’s actually one point in the story that digs into your psyche and stays there: the reveal of who was originally behind Lisa’s abduction, and why. Actually, one of two ‘whys’. The first is explained to Lisa by her abductor himself: the people who film this stuff usually have to work with the dregs of society: drug-addicted, street-walking runaways who have no family to care about them, no one to come looking for them. While these are easy prey, they’re hardly the most beautiful people in the world. Lisa, on the other hand, is a professional with a career. Young, well-loved, cared for, with little in the way of needs, she’s nothing like the battered and broken pieces of humanity the director uses, so it’s not surprising she’d command an extremely high price. But the other ‘why’ isn’t so easy to ascertain. Why Lisa specifically? When Gonzalez lets you in on the reason, it should give you trouble sleeping for a night or two.