Books: True Crime by Samantha Kolesnik

Back in 2020, it seemed like Samantha Kolesnik’s debut novella True Crime was everywhere; it got a massive amount of buzz in the horror community, and even though I successfully avoided any synopses or reviews of it prior to reading it for myself, it was hard to miss seeing its (awesome) cover popping up in YouTube thumbnails and in horror book review groups on multiple social media platforms. I had been wanting to read it for ages, so I was stoked when I spotted it on Kindle Unlimited to read for free. It’s not long, just 143 pages or so, and I easily read it in a single afternoon.

Comparisons to Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door and J.F. Gonzalez’s Survivor are ubiquitous, and I’ve also seen a few reviewers point out similarities with the film Natural Born Killers, at least in the book’s first act. These analogues are all accurate, though True Crime has a lot more going on than that. Just a heads-up, though, as usual: though I wouldn’t call this book “extreme horror” exactly, it is very grim, bleak, intense, and disturbing, and if you’re not down with reading realistic depictions of cold-blooded murder, animal cruelty, and horrific sexual abuse targeted towards children, as well as essentially spending an entire story inside the head of a sociopath, then you might want to give it a pass because there are some scenes in here that you probably don’t want hanging out in your brain. It’s a brilliant book, but it’s not a fun time, in other words.

At the beginning of the tale, we meet a teenage girl named Suzy, who lives in a tiny little shithole of a town with her mother (only referred to as Mama) and her older brother Lim. Suzy is obsessed with a magazine called True Crime, and from the first few paragraphs, the reader is made very aware that something is a little bit off with Suzy, in regards to the way that she reacts to the photos of the victims in her magazines; she seems to have some kind of fascination with women’s bodies as objects.

Not long afterward, we learn exactly why Suzy is the way she is: she has, since she can remember, been subjected to appalling sexual abuse at the hands of her mother, who not only personally assaults her daughter, but recruits her boyfriends to do the same. Suzy has never known love or compassion; she has only ever been used and violated, and that is literally the only experience she has ever had of the world and the people around her. She thinks of her brother Lim as her protector, which he is, though Lim as a person almost seems like a blank slate, someone who has either disconnected from all of his emotions (other than rage, perhaps) in order to cope with the situation, or never really had those emotions in the first place. It’s hinted that he might have done some terrible things as well, but his instincts toward his sister do appear to be those of a fierce guardian who will kill anyone who simply talks about her the wrong way. Suzy makes it clear on several occasions that she admires her brother because everyone is terrified of him, and also because he seems invincible.

During one particularly distressing session of abuse at the hands of her mother, Suzy finally snaps and beats the woman to death, after which Lim suggests they set the house on fire and skip town. It should be mentioned here that at some point in the recent past, Mama had kidnapped a young girl named Alice and kept her chained in the basement. Suzy, who had sometimes been comforted by talking to the captive Alice through an air vent in her room, briefly considers rescuing the child from the flames, but then shrugs the impulse off, and she and Lim simply leave her there to burn to death, with nothing but the barest twinge of regret.

As should be apparent from that last sentence, Suzy as a character is frighteningly sociopathic, but the thing that makes her terrifying is that she isn’t portrayed the way sociopaths often are in fiction; that’s why I think comparisons of this book with Natural Born Killers are slightly off the mark. In Natural Born Killers, Mickey and Mallory seem to revel in their sociopathy and cruelty, and they are represented that way because the film was making a statement about how the media sometimes tends to glamorize and romanticize people like them.

Suzy, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily seem to enjoy violence in the strictest definition of the word; more in line with a true sociopath, she doesn’t seem to “enjoy” much of anything, since all of her emotions have been dulled and numbed by years of traumatic abuse. She is a hollow shell of a person who sees other human beings, particularly women, as things, just a collection of parts to be used and discarded. It’s obvious she thinks of herself this way as well; she sometimes contemplates cutting off her breasts or removing her own genitalia, and appears to have absolutely no fear of her own physical pain or death. She occasionally comments that she finds a woman beautiful, but in a way that makes her want to take that woman apart and see what’s inside. She has no use for men in general, except for her brother, perceiving them as predators, to be killed if necessary.

After Suzy and Lim flee their home, they’re on the run for a bit, going on something of a mini killing spree. Although again, many people compared this segment to Natural Born Killers, the tone isn’t the same at all; yes, they kill people, usually for “practical” reasons (stealing money or a car), and although they occasionally indulge a murderous whim, they aren’t exactly partying about it, if that makes any sense. These aren’t gleefully vicious Rob Zombie characters, in other words, but I think that’s what makes them even more disturbing; they know they’re monsters, but they’re so dispassionate, killing more in a “wouldn’t it be interesting if we ran this woman over after we steal her car” kind of way. Their aloofness is what makes the whole thing seem much more realistic, and hence more troubling. I will note here that the overall tenor of the book is somewhat muted as well in its impact, with some very ghastly events seemingly glided over with little fanfare, but this is to be expected, since we’re seeing things through Suzy’s chillingly indifferent eyes.

Lim and Suzy’s flight doesn’t actually last all that long, however, because something happens that lands Lim in prison, and then we jump ahead two years. Suzy, who was perceived to have been dragged along on Lim’s escapade against her will, has been placed with an understanding foster couple, and seems to be receiving some rudimentary mental health care. It’s here where the story got even more compelling for me, because it begins to explore some uncomfortable questions about people like Suzy. Was she born the way she was and the abuse simply exaggerated something that was already there, or did the abuse alone mold her into the monster she became? Can she be helped, be taught to be normal? The answers are somewhat equivocal; this part of the book is actually really tragic, because not only has Suzy’s childhood taken away any sense of right and wrong she may once have possessed, but it has also made her distrustful of everyone and unable to understand or deal with people showing her kindness. She is so used to being victimized that she sees everyone as victimizers of one sort or another, and it’s hinted that this very effect of her lingering trauma may doom her forever.

As I mentioned, this is not a fun read at all, but it is a very harrowing and provocative one, as it deals more realistically with a murderer who was seemingly made by her horrific circumstances, and explores how one person’s trauma can metastasize to a point where if affects society at large. You don’t condone Suzy’s actions, of course, but because you as a reader are privy to what she went through as a child and know her inner thoughts since the narrative is told from her perspective, you can sympathize with her to some degree, and also despair at how her past clearly shaped her thought and behavior patterns to the detriment of everyone around her. Also, because she does seem to have some very embryonic notions of human empathy, you start to root for her, to hope that she’ll be able to overcome her corrupted nature, but the book doesn’t pull any punches in that regard; it seems to imply that it’s too late for Suzy, that she’s too far gone for redemption, which makes the story not only frightening, but heartbreaking as well.

If you like the work of Jack Ketchum in particular and are perhaps looking for something that delves into very dark corners concerning the larger consequences of trauma, and puts you literally into the unpleasant headspace of a sociopath without any sentimentality or embellishment, then I would definitely recommend True Crime; it’s a pretty stunning debut, and Samantha Kolesnik is undoubtedly a writer I’ll be keeping an eye on in the future.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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