Books: Dirty Heads by Aaron Dries

Today’s review sees us covering another novella, as well as another book I was happily able to read for free using my Kindle Unlimited subscription. I’m not going to lie; I definitely chose this one mainly for the cover art, which is incredible and was done by an artist known only as Thom. I’ll admit I also found the title and VHS theming quite intriguing; note, though, that the print version seems to have a little more of the theming going on inside the book, with section breaks delineated using old VHS tracking patterns. The ebook doesn’t have that, so I might just have to invest in a print copy of this; it isn’t a huge difference, but I love little thematic touches like that.

Anyway, this novella came out in fall of 2021 and is called Dirty Heads: A Novella of Cosmic Coming of Age Horror by Aaron Dries, who is an Australian author and filmmaker. The story within is basically exactly what it says on the tin; it’s the story of a boy who’s dealing with some issues who somehow manifests those issues as a literal monster. There have been several novels and books with a similar narrative, though I feel like usually the “monster” is metaphorical in some way (as in The Babadook, for example), but in this one it seems as though the monster is absolutely real, as characters other than the main protagonist see it, and it appears to have consequences in the real world.

At the beginning of the story, which is set right at the end of 1999 amid all the Y2K fears swirling around at the time, we’re introduced to our main character, a nineteen-year-old young man named Heath. He’s homeless and drifting, and sometimes lucks into a good Samaritan who gives him enough money for a decent bed for the night. As he struggles through his existence, he keeps seeing a monster—that he calls “my monster”—lurking around the periphery. The monster isn’t described further than a shadowy being with too many teeth.

After this brief prologue, we’re sent back in time to 1994, when Heath was thirteen years old. We’re led to assume that this was when the monster that plagues Heath’s life was created. I admit it took me a minute to get into the first part of the book, which is just a short summary of Heath’s life on the cusp of 2000 as he contends with his dire poverty, but once the story jumped back to 1994, I was all in. Even though I was already in my early 20s by the time 1994 rolled around, I could still relate to the world that thirteen-year-old Heath was living in.

A big part of Heath’s life back then was the local video store. Although his parents deemed him too young to watch horror movies, he was nonetheless fascinated by them, and enjoyed imagining and drawing his own ideas of what the movies were about, just based on what their covers looked like. His bedroom at home, likewise, was covered with movie posters for horror movies he’d never seen.

On the surface, it seems as though Heath had an ideal life; he has loving parents, a good relationship with his younger sister, and a devoted best friend. He’s a small kid, and is subject to some mild bullying, but it doesn’t seem to traumatize him too much.

He also has a crush on the older sister of his best friend, and makes her a mix tape, trying to express his feelings for her. This leads to something of a humiliating situation, which plays into the burgeoning negative emotions which will soon spawn a monster.

Probably Heath’s biggest issue, though, is that he fears that he might be gay. This doesn’t sound like a big deal now, but back in 1994, it was still not all that acceptable, and the AIDS epidemic was still very much a thing. Heath is terrified that he is gay and will die of AIDS, hence his insistence that he is in love with his friend’s sister; he’s trying to essentially “will the gay away.”

It’s not really working, though, and there are some other problems at home, too. Although it’s not overt, Heath begins to suspect that his father might have a secret, and it is this secret that appears to push the monster into being fully-formed. The monster seems to emerge from the abandoned house on the other side of their family’s duplex, and it begins to wreak havoc in Heath’s life and the lives of his family and friends.

I actually loved the 90s-era video store vibe of this novella, and the character of Heath was one of the most sympathetic, lovable characters I’ve read about in a while. The poor kid was just trying to get through his life as best as he could; he didn’t have huge problems, but they were enough to generate a horrible monster through no real fault of his own that proceeded to destroy everything that he held dear. Because I felt so much for the kid, it was heartbreaking to read all the stuff that he had to go through, because as I said, the creation of the monster wasn’t really his fault. And some pretty messed up stuff does happen to some really likeable and blameless characters in this story, so that made me feel for him all the more; this is horror in the most literal definition of the word in fact: awful things happening to good people without anyone really being to blame. This might be one of the few times in my reading life that I wanted to reach through the pages and give a character a hug.

If you’re a fan of coming of age stories, cosmic monster horror, queer horror, and nostalgic VHS era settings, then you owe it to yourself to give this a read. It’s only about 130 pages long, but it packs an emotional wallop way out of proportion to its length.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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