Title: The Scrubs
Author: Simon Janus
Publisher: Bad Moon Books
Pages: PDF was 69 pages
Point of Sale: Smashwords
Reviewed By: Cheryl Anne Gardner
Book Description: James Jeter, a serial killer with a 6th sense, holds court inside Wormwood Scrubs Prison. He's the focus of the "North Wing Project." He can create an alternate world containing the souls of his victims. Fellow inmate, Michael Keeler will earn a pardon if he enters Jeter's world to learn the identity of Jeter's last victim. Keeler can redeem himself, but at a price.
The North Wing project is, for all intents and purposes, using inmates as guinea pigs, which is a common theme seen in movies and books from A Clockwork Orange to Shutter Island, but while those books make some very powerful social statements, this book is just a free-for-all carnival freak show fun ride. Keeler is a volunteer prisoner; if there can be such a thing. He is a lifer with a boatload of guilt over shooting a child during a bank robbery, so he sees this project as maybe a way to redeem himself, despite the screaming and spook stories he's heard about the North Wing. When our hapless hero finally gets to the North Wing, he finds fellow inmate and psycho serial killer, Jeter, strapped to a chair, eyes sewn shut, body and mind wasted away. We have the typical war room styled command centre surrounding him, monitoring him, as he's being jacked up on some green goop.
Of course, according the greedy, criminally unjust powers that be, they only wanted to probe Jeter's mind all scientific like to find out what makes a killer a killer. What they got instead was a telekinetic psychopath with a vendetta who could produce a temporal rift with his mind. So far, two other inmates have gone AWOL in the rift, and Keeler has unknowingly volunteered to be sent in to find them.
What we are presented with here is the idea of an alternative dimension similar to the world created in the movie The Cell. A magical, make believe world created and controlled entirely by the mind of a psychopath. In The Cell, a psychologist has to enter this mind-world in order to find one of the killer's missing victims and save "a child." This has a similar premise but with different characters. However, while the imagery was garish and gory, it wasn't quite as fantastical as I normally like in these types of stories, but that's a personal tic -- I was spoiled on too much Lovecraft and Poe in my younger days, I suppose. However, some readers might find the imagery too much or just right, depending on how they like their horror porridge.
Back to the story, our administrative cretins have found that using a highly toxic and native variant of the Wormwood plant can produce an especially hallucinogenic absinthe, which they have been dosing liberally for quite some time. The prison has a high incidence of psychotic episodes, and not just with the inmates. For me, the whole feel of the story reminded me of Shutter Island, strike the social commentary and add in inter-dimensional time travel for the purpose of "entertainment." Here, virtual reality is not so virtual. Now you can play Hostel or House of a Thousand Corpses or Chainsaw Massacre for real without getting arrested, at least that's what the suits are hoping to sell.
I liked the story. It had some standard themes I hope to see in novellas of this kind: greed, human rights issues, the misappropriation and the procreation of evil, but I, personally, could have used a more visceral writing style. Instead of telling me that the emotions playing across people's faces were a "mix of shock and wonderment," I would have liked to experience this sort of stuff on a more intimate level with more mood and movement, as I like to call it. There were also some ideas I would have liked to see explored a little more in depth. In one scene, Jeter gets to Cady: peering into his soul with his sightless eyes, and Cady readily admits that Jeter "got to him," but the shame Cady says he feels isn't elaborated upon. We don't get in deep enough; there is no monologue or confession for us to associate this "shame" with, so we don't really feel any sympathy for the man. Keeler is fleshed out a little better, but most of the characters are of the typical corporate villain stereotype and do nothing more for the story than move the plot along.
Anyway, back to the story, again, Keeler manages to find the two other inmates he is supposed to be looking for, but they don't want to leave. Obviously, in the psycho mind-world, they can be the monsters they are with no consequences, they can be Gods, which was reminiscent of Clive Barker's The Last Illusion, and the predictable yet climactic hail of bullets ending with the wormwood tendrils spiralling up from the void will take you back to the end of the movie Silent Hill, which had some of the most imaginative horror imagery and one of the most inventive uses of a temporal rift I have ever witnessed.
The Scrubs had a few noticeable editorial issues that had me stumbling here and there. As for the writing style, it's a very plot oriented and fast-paced sci-fi action thriller, so the characters felt a bit thin to me, and the visual luxuriousness I normally like in this sort of thing was lacking at the expense of the action. I suppose I just wanted a little more, more of everything. Action thriller is not really a genre I like to read, but the sci-fi horror premise was intriguing, and in my opinion, if the author had dug in a little deeper, it could be a novel of fantastic proportions. So, if you are looking for the social significance and the emotional depth of Shutter Island and the stunning imagery of say Clive Barker meets H.P. Lovecraft at “The Silent Hill Cell,” you might be disappointed, but if you are going into this for a quick action packed escapist sci-fi prison break sort of thing, with lots of grand-standing, shoulder-muscling, some very flip cliché dialog, and a lot of gun pointing, oozing exploding body parts, and posturing, then you will love this short novella without a doubt.
This book was reviewed from a PDF purchased at retail by the reviewer before the author queried for a review.