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Death Machine”

by Erik Hanson, 2023

“When you are a child, the line between the supernatural and the rational is thin, and the things from the otherside slip back and forth with ease. The adolescent brain is new, fresh, and uncluttered with memories. It can receive information that the adult mind rejects or is unable to accept. The young mind is a terminal for the unknown, and RJ is a willing recipient.”

This will be an unusually personal review.

In “Death Machine”, Kevin is a shy child, more focused on his toys than on other kids. He certainly prefers playing alone than being around his drunken father. But even that can not compare to the horror of meeting an infamous serial killer.

I was impressed with the tenderness and heartbreak of this opening. Hanson paints a vivid and accurate picture of Kevin's life that reminded me of my own childhood. (No drunken father, but plenty shy and withdrawn when I was little. The drunken father lived across the street and I saw the effect he had on his own kids.)

A year later, a Laotian man driving on a dark highway recalls his flight through Vietnam, ahead of a Communist death squad. His memories are poignant and brutal, reminiscent of “The Killing Fields”. His fate, as he encounters a mysterious vehicle (on a strip of highway I've traveled a good number of times), underscores the unfairness of murder.

Another year passes, and a young teen, RJ, grows up in the town of Marysville, walking to school via the levees along the 19th Century cemetery—which I've driven by and admired many times. RJ and his friends are typical nerdy kids, growing up as fans of horror movies, afraid of bullies, lusting for girls they'll never work up the courage to speak with, and holding a séance to summon the dead.

But they might never grow up—not when they come under the gaze of a monstrous psychopathic killer who's returned to continue his bloody legacy.

“Death Machine” is a thriller and a work of fiction. But the killer within these pages is not fictional. He was real.

When I was a little kid, growing up in the Bay Area, news of the real-life Zodiac Killer was all over the TV. As a result, other kids would tell me, with trembling voices, that they were afraid the Zodiac might get them. Even at that age, I thought the chances of that happening were statistically unlikely. But their terror was genuine. I recognized it then and I remember it to this day.

This book revives those days and nights of terror. Because the Zodiac Killer is back.

Erik Hanson's debut novel is like a painting of a far-off time, with numerous details shown with great clarity. It's a leisurely romp with a definite charm, looking back at nostalgic 1980s' Northern California. The kids reluctantly attend church and stay up late to watch horror movies and eat pizza. It's a book where the neighborhood bully is one of the more interesting characters. But even when things are pleasant, the horror lurks in the background, waiting and watching. When the waiting ends, the story is a gore fest. For those that like that sort of thing.

If there's a weak spot in the book, it's that the Zodiac disappears for quite a while—just like in real life. Still, this is a fast read, scary in places and heartfelt throughout, with very few misspellings or missing commas.

4.5 stars, easily rounded up to 5.


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