October Horrors: The Abuse of Ashley Collins

Note: I do not, as a general rule, write reviews laden with spoilers, but I’m making an exception to my rule with this one as it’s essential to understanding why I gave it the rating I did.

As an avid reader of horror, I feel there are almost no subjects that should be immediately “off-limits” for writers to pick from. I’ve let authors take me down some truly dark pathways over my years, and wouldn’t have it any other way. That said, if there is a laundry list of topics where writers need to tread with extreme caution, ‘Child Abuse’ is definitely on it.

I don’t feel it’s inappropriate to write about child abuse, or any other real-life issue for that matter, but it’s one of those topics where it’s very easy to cross the line to the point where, instead of writing about something shocking to make a point, one writes about something shocking just to shock. You need some serious writing chops to tackle these issues–my go-to example is Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. Ketchum didn’t write his book because he wanted to, he wrote it because it was the only way he could go about exorcising the demons residing in his brain after learning about a real-life case of almost impossible to understand cruelty, abuse, and neglect: the murder of Sylvia Likens.

If his author note is to be believed, Athan didn’t set out to write a novel meant to titillate or be enjoyed, and he knew what an uphill trek he faced in that regard. That said, I re-iterate: if your writing chops aren’t up to the task, ‘child abuse’ is a bad subject to pick for your novel, and I have to say, I don’t think Jon Athan has what it takes to play in this particular league. If you select ‘girl tied up for debasement and abuse’ as a trope for your novel, you’re automatically going up against the likes of Jack Ketchum and Mendal W. Johnson (Let’s Go Play at the Adams’) with regards to fiction, any number of famous True Crime authors with regards to non-fiction, and Dave Pelzer who seemingly straddled the fence with A Child Called ‘It’. That’s one hell of a hurdle you’re aiming to jump, and in the end, you’re either found confident, over-confident, or stupid depending on how it works out.

I believe Athan understood what he was going up against tackling this one, so I can’t lay ‘stupid’ on him. ‘Over-confident’ though? Yeah, that feels right. Most books of this type cast the victim as an innocent in need of rescue, while Ashley Collins is initially set up as the sort of bitchy, can’t-be-controlled sixteen year old who lives in every parent’s nightmares. Teenagers have flaws and like to stretch the boundaries imposed upon them by well-meaning parents, but Ashley seems hell-bent on heaping as much shame on her family’s name as it’s possible for a daughter to heap: she’s sneaking her boyfriend into her room at night to have sex, she smokes, she’s procured a fake ID so she can pick up booze for her friends at parties, she sasses back to her parents, refuses to listen to authority, and in general seems to be biding her time until she can run off and make nothing from her life. She’s the sort of person you find yourself wanting to smack, and she’s driving her parents to the breaking point.

So it’s not surprising, really, to find ourselves initially siding with Jane and Logan, Ashley’s mom and dad, when they decide enough is enough and something needs to be done. Of course given the title of the book, it doesn’t take a seer to predict they’re going to take things way too far. Athan didn’t call it “The Stern Talking-To of Ashley Collins”, after all.

The problem with Logan and Jane’s response to their daughter’s antics is that it’s far too explosive far too fast. This is a short novella, just over 100 pages on my eReader, so Athan can’t muck around with a lot of background or personal development. He’s got to get right to the action, and so, after finding Ashley and her boyfriend grinding away in bed, we see the seeds of what’s to come planted in Logan’s head.

We also get some really uncomfortable incestuous themes rearing their head on page one as Ashley’s 12-year old brother Calvin listens excitedly to his sister’s moans of ecstasy. This continues throughout the book, with Calvin stealing a pair of Ashley’s underwear to “experiment” with, and later sneaking into the basement to ogle his sister, snap a couple pictures of her, and even cop a feel while she’s tied up and helpless to do anything about it. Calvin’s one messed up kid to be sure, and though he’s clearly got some screws loose up there, it was also pretty much a given that he’d ultimately be the one to come to his senses and let his sister go in the end since nobody else would. He’s ultimately the worst character in the story, not for anything he does or doesn’t do, but simply because he’s a weak, flat, uninteresting portrayal of a twelve-year old who contributes next to nothing to the story. Erasing Calvin or developing him further would go a long way towards making the story more ‘enjoyable’ (which is not the right word for a tale involving child abuse, but you know what I mean). Calvin exists to give the story titillation factor as we see his older sister through his adolescent eyes, but that is absolutely the last thing a book like this either needs or deserves. Ketchum’s teenage narrator goes through a phase of this in The Girl Next Door, but his character isn’t the raging asshole Calvin is. Calvin, after all, tries to negotiate a blow job from his sister in exchange for her release. Fuck off you little dipshit, and shame on you, Jon Athan, for going there.

Of course at some point we need to sympathize with Ashley beyond the “oh my god, she’s a child being tortured in a basement by her own parents” factor, so Athan gives us a valid reason for Ashley’s behavior: she was victimized, molested by her own uncle, when she was younger, and when she told her mother about it, her mother’s response was basically, “I don’t believe you, now don’t bring it up again.” Yeah, I’d say Ashley’s got a plenty good reason for hating her parents the way she does, and now so does the reader.

I’d be more pissed off if I didn’t know this sort of stuff happens every single day in real life.

But the final way I can tell Athan doesn’t have the chops for this is the way he depicts the abuse Ashley undergoes at the hands of first her father, then later her mother. He can’t decide if he wants to simply document it, the way many true crime writers describe the laundry list of horrors which befell the victim, or if he wants us to try and live through it with Ashley. He’s good at the former, describing in a dispassionate, telling format how many times Ashley is hit on which part of the body with what kind of instrument (wire hanger, electric cord, etc…) and what her skin looks like after the infliction of injury. He’s not so good at the latter, with the sole exception being the description of Ashley struggling to chew up and swallow a condom. This, by the way, should have resulted in her death from an excruciating abdominal or intestinal rupture, since her father makes her swallow a total of three. The chance of one not getting stuck and causing issues I could put down to blind luck, but three one right after another? There’s no way she doesn’t end up with a severe blockage somewhere in the digestive tract within 24-48 hours, but she’s still going weeks later with no sign of problems.

There are just certain points where a writer describing things can no longer do them justice, and Athan’s not figured this out yet. The single most memorable passage from Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door involves the narrator refusing to relate the absolute worst of the abuse he witnessed. You know what’s coming, he’s set the stage, but he doesn’t need to tell you what happened, because your imagination will work it out. Athan has none of this confidence in his audience, so when Jane gets out the matches for a little fire play and Ashley later returns the favor with a curling iron, we watch it unfold before our eyes…or rather, we read the omniscient narrator telling us all about what’s happening instead of showing us or, as might be more appropriate, not showing us.

Finally, for all the physical abuse and agony she’s undergone combined with the lack of medical care and good food she’s given to eat over the weeks-long course of her duress, when she finally does get free, Ashley should barely have the energy to crawl out of the basement. Instead, she gets a surge of adrenaline that turns her into a Terminator, allowing her to stomp through the house and take savage revenge on the people who wronged her. For God’s sake, Jennifer Hills from I Spit on Your Grave takes a few days to put herself back together again before beginning the revenge-fueled attack on her rapists, and she didn’t suffer anywhere near the physical and psychological trauma Ashley does at the hands of her parents.

The Abuse of Ashley Collins is not a bad book, it’s just a story in search of a better writer to tell it. Hats off to Athan for attempting something so far above his pay grade, but wishes aren’t horses and by the end of the story, the best I can say is he didn’t turn in something completely devoid of merit. He executes his character swap well enough (we begin the book hating Ashley and rooting for her parents, then end the book rooting for Ashley and hoping her parents die in some kind of post-hole-digger incident), but there’s more to a book like this than just pulling off a switch of reader favor, and if we’re being honest, it’s really not hard to root for the teenager having cigarettes extinguished on her nipples. I’ll give Athan another try in the future, this piece just can’t be a contender.

Two-and-a-half blood-crusted bruises out of five.

Michael Crisman

In 1979, Michael Crisman was mauled by a radioactive Gorgar pinball machine. After the wounds healed, doctors discovered his DNA had been re-coded. No longer fully human, Michael requires regular infusions of video games in order to continue living among you. If you see him, he can see you. Make no sudden moves, but instead bribe him with old issues of computer and video game magazines or a mint-in-box copy of Dragon Warrior IV. If he made you laugh, drop a tip in his jar at http://paypal.me/modernzorker (If he didn't make you laugh, donate to cure his compulsion to bang keyboards by sending an absurdly huge amount of money to his tip jar instead. That'll show him!)

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