BOOK REVIEW: Odd Man Out
– By M Jones
Horror is not limited to the fantastic. I think in many ways, horror sets up a mirror to things in our own society that terrify us and offers a kind of cathartic balm that helps us deal with those feelings in our conscious lives. It’s also a way for certain social norms to be further established, such as in slasher films which become morality plays where the savvy virgin is the winner. But there are times when the reality is so horrific it supercedes the imagination and leaves us standing in confusion, wondering how and why people can do such terrible things to each other. Most of the time we care about our fellow human beings. Most of us don’t actively seek the suffering of others. So why do these terrible things happen?
Odd Man Out does not give a solution or answer to this problem, and I don’t think it should try to. Using real life cases of gay bashing and toxic masculinity as its base, what is presented by author James Newman is a terrifying escalation of violence that is made all the worse not only because it is based in reality, but because the reader already knows what’s coming.
The Black Mountain Camp for boys, set in 1989, is a backdrop for a story that has a cast of ordinary characters who could have stepped off the set of Stand By Me. The violent, homophobic diction begins immediately, and it’s clear from the start who the instigators of evil are going to be amongst this cast of characters, with our protagonist bearing uncomfortable and guilty witness. There is nothing new here in story structure, the elevating violence and cruelty ramping up through the novella until its truly horrific denouement, which is definitely not for the sensitive or squeamish. What is new is this sense the reader has that those who perpetrated the crime have not at all suffered enough for what they have done. It’s this, the hopeless injection of this reality in the aftermath of what had happened, that gives the reader pause the most. Being a follower, being unable to stand up for what is right, allowing cruelty and torture to happen and even to gleefully participate in it if only to save oneself…There is a sense of otherness amongst the characters who actively commit this crime where they become the odd ones out, *they* become the pariahs that the world must fear regardless of their remorse.
I came away from this story with a feeling that I could not forgive the protagonist for his lack of action, regardless of the dangers posed to himself, and perhaps this is the point. To follow a bully, to allow him to torture and maim another person for whatever excuse he can dredge up, is the height not only of cowardice, but complicity. That the protagonist can’t forgive himself is also an expansion upon that act of evil. Due to this horrific act of murder and betrayal, he can never feel a part of the world again.
The importance of standing up to bullies is not a new concept in fiction. Yet we seem to still need reminding of it, that a person’s undercurrent of toxic violence can spill over into our own sense of morality and judgement to the point that self preservation takes precedence and power is thus given to the oppressor. It’s important we take a good, hard look at what that kind of targeted fear can do. Ignorant brutes become kings. Sycophants are blinded by his perceived strength and wilfully do his bidding. Over and over, the same mistakes are made. What happens in this story is part of a much, much larger one that rides on the historic rhetoric of hate. This is not a unique horror story. This story offers no catharsis. It is a story of apathy. It’s a coming of age story that tells how easy it is for us to lose what makes us human.