Books: The Black Farm by Elias Witherow

Elias Witherow’s The Black Farm, published by Thought Catalog in 2017, was recommended to me by a friend, and seemed to have had a bit of buzz surrounding it when it came out, judging by reviews and other people on GoodReads and Reddit recommending it, so I thought I’d give it a shot. As is my usual habit, I didn’t read a synopsis or any of the reviews prior to diving in, and didn’t look up anything in particular about the author.

I will say right from the outset that this would probably be classified as extreme horror; it’s certainly not the worst thing I’ve ever read in that regard, but it’s pretty graphic, grim, and fairly soul-crushing, so if you’re not into reading explicitly detailed descriptions of suicide, rape, torture, dismemberment, and cannibalism, and can’t really stomach gallons of stinking vomit, then maybe give this one a pass. As I said, it isn’t the most extreme horror I’ve ever read by a long stretch—hell, most of it didn’t even faze me, which is maybe not a good thing, as it suggests that I’m probably way too jaded—but it’s still depressing and gross, so if that’s not your cup of ipecac, then best stay far away.

I will also admit that while I found this book a quick, action-packed read that had some really imaginative ideas behind it and kept me eager to see what in the hell was going to happen next, I did have some problems with it, leaving me feeling a little ambivalent about the whole experience.

The Black Farm is told from the first-person perspective of a young man named Nick, who has a girlfriend named Jess. The couple has endured a series of tragedies over the previous year: the deaths of a couple of family members, Nick losing his job, the couple receiving an eviction notice, and worst of all, Jess suffering the miscarriage of a baby that was very much wanted. This final loss was the straw that broke the camel’s back, and sweet, compassionate Jess just can’t take it anymore, unable to understand why the world has suddenly turned so cruel and pitiless. She decides to end her own life, and Nick, who can’t imagine life without her, vows that they will go out together. So they do, swallowing a bunch of sleeping pills in their once-happy home. But it turns out, their death is only the beginning of an unimaginable nightmare.

Nick awakens in a world of pain, being dragged across the ground by what appears to be a huge, disfigured man. He’s taken into a building and chained in a concrete cell, where a normal-enough looking dude named Danny gives him a little bit of scuttlebutt about what exactly is going on.

He tells Nick that when you commit suicide, you end up in this place, which is called the Black Farm. It’s something like a purgatorial dimension, in a sense, neither heaven nor hell. It was apparently created by some kind of demigod or similar being known only as The Pig, who was allowed to fashion the place to his liking (within reason), since neither God nor the Devil could decide on what to do with the people deemed Suicidals.

The Pig created a place that was sort of like the world we know, but twisted in many ways. The Black Farm exists on an island surrounded by a massive, seemingly endless ocean that’s patrolled by gargantuan monsters. There’s a sun, but it’s broken, leaking black poison into the waters. It’s always steadily drizzling rain, and there’s no day or night. There’s a forest, and a mountain, and various dwellings, but everything is hopeless and horrible, a never-ending litany of pain and misery.

Aside from the human Suicidals roaming through this desolate hellscape, there are also other monstrous beings called the Pig Born, who, true to their name, are malformed offspring of The Pig. They live to brutally torture anyone they come across.

Even though the humans trapped on the Black Farm are technically already dead from our standpoint, they can still feel pain and suffer just like a living human would, and when they “die” on the Farm, they’re reborn onto it with their previous wounds healed, but in a completely different part of the Farm than before, so they essentially have to start over, like a video game character ready to be tormented anew.

After Nick endures horrific tortures and indignities, he begins to get angrier and angrier, and even more determined to find Jess and get both of them out of this place, even though he doesn’t even know if that’s possible. The only way to leave the Farm, or so he’s led to believe, is by “feeding The Pig,” which will either send you straight to hell, which is far, far worse than the Farm, or back to your old life for another go. There’s no way of knowing which outcome you’ll get, however.

So the bulk of the story is simply Nick fighting his way through the Farm and trying to figure out a way to escape. Along the way, all manner of ghastly things happen to him and some of the other humans he meets during his journey, and as the book goes on, it gets bleaker and bleaker and you start to wonder if there really is any way for anyone to escape from the continuous despair and violence of this world.

As I mentioned, the world building in this is quite good, as I could picture the appearance of this dimension in my head as I read, and I thought I had a pretty good handle on the rules of the place and what the stakes were for the characters. The disgusting bits are also very vividly written, which may be a good or a bad thing, depending on your point of view. The very idea of the Black Farm, in fact, was a really intriguing concept, being the product of indifferent and indecisive deities who didn’t seem to care all that much about human suffering. In that sense, this is a very nihilistic book in a lot of ways, leaning very hard into the notion that the worst thing imaginable isn’t a universe devoid of meaning, but a universe that’s actively run by gods who don’t give a squirt of piss about us, and sometimes actively enjoy watching us writhe in agony for their own sick amusement.

But I think the thing that lessened my experience of the story somewhat was the character development, and specifically the difficulty I had suspending my disbelief in regards to the characters. Nick, our main protagonist, isn’t presented as anyone special, really, and most of the time is pretty unlikeable, so I had a hard time getting on board with the idea that over all the millennia that the Black Farm has presumably existed, he would be the only one to fight back to the extent that he did.

By the same token, sometimes things seemed just a little too easy for him, in spite of all the horrors he endured; he just happened to find a weapon, for example, or his enemies weren’t bright enough or strong enough to fight back against him or realize when he was fooling them. This might have been mitigated somewhat if we had gotten to know Nick before he was ejected into the Black Farm—if we knew that he had something about his past or psychological makeup that went some way toward explaining his particular skills, in other words—but we don’t; the story begins with him and Jess committing suicide, and then we’re off to the races. We do learn more about Nick’s inner thoughts and weaknesses as we go along, but I felt as though I didn’t really know him, and I also thought that his transformation from beaten, terrified man into one-liner-spouting badass was a bit abrupt, and read as a bit of an adolescent power fantasy, in the vein of something like Richard Laymon’s work.

I also thought that more would be done with Nick’s growing fury against the place and the steady abatement of his empathy toward others as he battled his way through the Farm—I suspected at one point that he was basically going to become like the monsters he fought and realize that he liked the Farm, in other words—but nothing really came of all his conflicted feelings about the savage things he had to do to survive and find his love. I will note that there is a sequel to this book, called Return to the Black Farm, which came out in 2019, so maybe the seeds planted in this tale come to fruition in that one, though I haven’t read it, so I can’t say for sure.

And sadly, the character of Jess isn’t fleshed out at all; she’s basically just a cipher, an object to motivate Nick into bucking the system at the Farm and fighting the whole wretched place. She doesn’t ever seem to make any effort to save herself, and she’s almost impossibly pure and forgiving and supportive, even after Nick makes some pretty fucked-up admissions to her. Another woman he meets at the Farm, Megan, serves pretty much the same purpose; she’s just there to suffer and thus outrage Nick into action. It’s not a great look, but to be fair to the story, Nick is presented as something of a selfish character, if not all that bad otherwise, so maybe we’re just seeing everything through his perceptions, and that’s how he views his girlfriend and other women he meets: as nothing but props to either support or motivate his own efforts.

Overall, this was a grotesquely entertaining ride, a definite page turner that had a fantastic premise, horrifically detailed gore and general fucked-up-ed-ness, and really imaginative set pieces and world building. The main character wasn’t all that well delineated, and came across pretty edgelordy, and the other characters were basically just there as cardboard cutouts to help or hinder Nick in his quest. The exploration into Nick’s deteriorating morality was interesting, and I would have liked to have seen that play into the story more; I’d have also liked to have had more time with Nick and Jess before they died so I could get a better handle on their personalities and the specifics of their relationship, so it would be clearer what made their love so special that it spurred Nick to this vast act of rebellion that apparently no one on the Farm had ever attempted before. The book also could have used one more pass through an editor, as there was a smattering of grammatical errors and a few instances of incorrect word usage, but it wasn’t nearly as bad as some others I’ve read, so I don’t want to harp on that too much.

A lot of people really seemed to dig this book a lot, and I dug it too, just maybe not as much as some others did. If you’re into extreme horror and are in the mood for something kinda depraved and existentially harsh, then give it a whirl. I’d actually be interested to read the sequel to see if any of the issues I had with the book are dealt with, so if you have read it, then let me know if it’s worth reading.

Until next time, keep it creepy, my friends.

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