Books: The Venue by T.J. Payne

As you guys might remember, I read, enjoyed, and reviewed a 2019 scifi/horror novel called Intercepts by T.J. Payne not too long ago, so when the same author’s follow-up book—The Venue: A Wedding Novel, from 2020—popped up in my Kindle Unlimited recommendations, I was immediately intrigued. The cover was stark and eye-catching, and the brief synopsis made the story sound something like the 2019 black comedy horror film Ready or Not, which I was a big fan of. So I dove right in, and ended up reading the entire 296-page novel in a single sitting. The book is fun, brutal, gory, blackly hilarious, and action-packed, and I had an absolute blast with it; the premise is outlandish, of course, but that’s part of what makes it such a hoot. And yes, it is somewhat similar to Ready or Not, with added shades of Battle Royale and The Purge, and if that sounds like something you’d be into, then this is an easy recommendation.

In the prologue of The Venue, we’re inside the head of a guy named Caleb, who is trying to compose an invitation email to someone named Amy, inviting her to his wedding. It’s clear from his multiple drafts that he and Amy used to be best friends, that they drifted apart at some point when they became teenagers, that he’s still carrying a torch for her, and that he despises her for the way he imagines she “treated” him.

We then jump to someone who’s only ever called “the Event Planner,” obviously getting The Venue up to snuff for the upcoming nuptials. The Event Planner notices something on the ground, which turns out to be a severed human ear (very Blue Velvet). Irritated, she scoops the ear up and tucks it away in a staff member’s pocket before the arrival of the happy couple, Caleb and Lilith. The Event Planner then escorts the pair into the office to finalize the plans for their big day.

Cut to Amy, who seems to be having a bit of a hard time. She’s just broken up with her longtime girlfriend Mariko, and although the women are still friends, Amy has moved to a studio apartment on her own in order to get some space. She was invited to Caleb’s wedding months before, and she and Mariko are still planning to go together; Amy’s parents, Roger and Candice, are also invited, since Caleb grew up across the street from them and knew the entire family. The wedding is a fancy destination shindig, all expenses paid by the couple; neither Amy, her parents, nor Mariko want to turn down the chance for a free vacation, spending a couple of days enjoying the best of everything, even though they haven’t really spoken to Caleb in a long time and aren’t really sure why he would invite them to the event. They’re also a little weirded out by the fact that the location of the wedding has not been disclosed; all they know is that it’s somewhere in Europe, that a limo will come pick them up the day before, and absolutely everything will be taken care of.

After traveling for hours, the four arrive at The Venue, which is a breathtaking spread somewhere in the Alps, it appears. Lots of other wedding guests are already there, and Amy recognizes a few of them: some teachers from the school she and Caleb attended, for example, which again strikes her as odd. It’s also a bit of a red flag that all of the guests are asked to surrender their cell phones and electronic devices before check-in, as The Venue prides itself on its privacy and exclusivity; the staff don’t want anyone taking photos or informing anyone of their exact location.

Though this makes some of the guests uncomfortable, they’re soon mollified by the news that their electronic wristbands give them full access to all of The Venue’s amenities: all the food and booze is free, there are pools and day spas and movie theaters, and really anything else you might want to relax and soak in the luxury. It all seems too good to be true.

Well, surprise surprise: it is. When the time of the wedding arrives, the guests hear some of the strangest wedding vows ever, and after the ceremony, they file into the ballroom for the reception, only to be greeted by what appears to be a regular ballroom set up for a wedding, but with one entire wall mounted with medieval-style bladed weapons.

As should be evident by now, Caleb and Lilith have spared no expense in order to get everyone they feel has wronged them in their lives to The Venue; but it’s not necessarily to kill them, oh no…that would be too easy. The psychotic couple actually want the guests to kill each other, to become the monsters that Caleb and Lilith have always seen them as, in their delusional minds.

It’s a fantastic set-up, and once the gloves come off, the entire novel is just one bloody thrill ride, as the guests struggle to survive the night. The rules are simple: all each guest has to do is kill one other person, then that guest will be free to go (although their memory of the event will be wiped before they leave). If they try to escape The Venue, the electronic bracelet will detonate, blowing their arm off, and there’s also the possibility that they’ll be picked off by the bride or the groom themselves, if the mood strikes.

The concept is simple, but loads of fucked-up fun, and the focus on Amy, Mariko, and Amy’s parents really ups the stakes, as you’re rooting for them to find a way out of this mess. Some of the story is told from Caleb’s point of view, and those parts are particularly stomach-turning, as he gives off a real incel vibe; even though he seemingly overcame his childhood awkwardness and became a tech billionaire, he still harbors festering resentments against anyone who slighted him even a tiny bit. Caleb has spent the past couple of decades apparently weaving a narrative that his childhood best friend Amy “abandoned” him so she could chase boys he felt were inferior to him; the fact that she’s a lesbian never occurred to him at all, because he felt entitled to have his feelings of love for her reciprocated, even though from her point of view, they just drifted apart naturally, as many childhood friends do. And in Lilith, he found a match made in Hell: Lilith is a stone cold psychopath, who was easily able to manipulate Caleb to go all in on this revenge wedding, feeding his feelings of entitlement and superiority, which she also shares, though to a much more extreme degree.

Though The Venue is slightly lighter on character development, being more focused on the unfolding carnage, I actually didn’t mind that one bit, as I thought the characters were sketched in just enough to make the story interesting and to keep you pulling for the good guys and hoping the bad guys would get their comeuppance in the most savage way possible. Main protagonist Amy was a particular highlight, as she seemed very much like a regular woman who is thrust into a deadly situation and is way out of her depth, but is able to tap into hidden reserves of strength in order to try and save the day.

The Venue isn’t particularly deep or thought-provoking, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than it is: an over-the-top, darkly funny bloodbath of a novel that’s just taking you on a crazy, breakneck journey through a world in which the ultra-wealthy can choose to stage their weddings or family reunions as barbaric fights to the death, and in which there are purpose-built locales that will cater to their every whim in that regard. To be honest, it actually wouldn’t shock me if that turned out to be true, so I’ll know to be wary if I ever receive a mysterious wedding invitation from someone I barely remember that offers to fly me halfway around the world for free.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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