“I died again last night.” It’s a compelling first sentence to a novella told from the point of view of Elijah Sexton, a demon, and it promises a different and exciting new start to Dan Wells’s JOHN CLEAVER series.
Sexton drinks memories. For a time, he killed people himself, “topping off” his memory as he pleases. Soon, though, imbued with a hundred thousand lives, he could no longer bear to kill. Instead, he works in a morgue and drinks the memories of the newly dead. He lives
from death to death, sometimes two weeks, sometimes three, holding on as long as I can while my brain slips away like sand in an hourglass, grain by grain, loose and crumbling, until I can barely remember my own name and I have to find another. I drink their minds like a trembling addict, desperate and ashamed.
Other demons mock Sexton for loving humans, instead of using them, but his intimate contact with them made him a de facto member of the human race, his real self lost in the “overwhelming crowd” whose memories have been left in his brain:
I’ve lived as a banker in Nebraska, as a soldier in the Confederacy, as a Portuguese sailor in the Age of Exploration. I wove silk in the ancient dynasties, I fought and died on the banks of the Nile. The memories sink and surface like flotsam, more painful every time. How can I kill my own heart? How can I hurt them when their joys become my own? So I wait for them to die, and then I drink in peace.
From the very beginning, then, it’s hard not to like, and even feel sorry for, Sexton. He has few friends; his one deep connection is with a man named Merrill Evans, a man suffering from a loss of memory that appears to be Alzheimer’s Disease. Evans is confined to the Whiteflower Assisted Living Center, which Sexton visits regularly. This is a demon with a conscience, a demon even worthy of pity. He is very nearly as fascinating as is John Wayne Cleaver, the star of Wells’s books.
The action begins when Sexton begins to lose his memory a couple of weeks after taking his last draught, a man named Billy Chapman who appears to have died of exposure, who was married to Rosie and loved her deeply. Sexton’s memory always goes quickly towards the end of the period between his drinks, and it is soon apparent that Sexton will need to drink from the very next corpse that comes through the morgue, regardless of its cause of death (Sexton tries to avoid the worst types of deaths, as they are too horrible for him to relive; drowning is especially awful). It is fortunate that a body arrives that appears to be another exposure case, and Sexton drinks him without thinking twice about it. But the drink makes it immediately obvious that the man was killed, and Sexton recognizes the murderer. It’s time to leave town, but Sexton loves Rosie just as Billy did, and he can’t bring himself to leave her.
So the machinery is set in motion, even if John Cleaver hasn’t appeared yet. The way Wells works this story in and around his novel, The Devil’s Only Friend, is masterful. The novel is narrated by Cleaver in the first person, so that what Sexton tells us in this novella fills in some blanks — though ultimately, those blanks are only blanks of emotion, rather than of events. It’s possible to read the novel without having read the novella, but the novel is richer and deeper if the reader has the melancholy of the novella as background. Wells impresses with his ability to weave the two stories around one another. And Sexton has a poetry about him that Cleaver doesn’t, making the prose unexpectedly lovely for a horror novel.
Read Next of Kin either before or after you read The Devil’s Only Friend; it contains no information necessary to the enjoyment of the novel, and the novel will not spoil it. I’m glad I read it first, so that I already had a sense of Elijah’s character, and someone to root for in what is becoming increasingly clear is a war by humanity against the demons. It is a surprisingly gentle tale that complements a violent, angry and disturbing one.
John Cleaver — (2009- ) Publisher: John Wayne Cleaver is dangerous, and he knows it. Obsessed with serial killers, he never wants to be one. Yet terrible impulses constantly tempt him. Having grown up helping his mom at the family mortuary, dead bodies are no big deal to John. He likes them, actually. They don’t ask for the empathy he’s unable to offer. Perhaps that’s what gives him the clarity to recognize that something is frighteningly different about the freshest body on the slab. For the first time, John must confront a danger outside his own mind, a threat he cannot control, a menace to everything and everyone he would love, if only he could. Dan Wells’s debut will keep you awake and then haunt your dreams.