We Are All Completely Fine by Daryl Gregory
Imagine that, like the hapless characters in movies like The Hills Have Eyes and Wrong Turn, you and a group of friends were captured by cannibals. You were kept alive while choice cuts of you were “harvested”, and you alone survived. Imagine that you were the victim of a sadistic abductor who flayed the flesh of your arms and legs and carved images onto your bones. Imagine that you alone survived the rising of the Elder Gods in your home town. What would you do? Who would you talk to? Would you even be sane? That’s the premise of We Are All Completely Fine, a novella by Daryl Gregory, published by Tachyon Press.
Dr. Jan Sayer has drawn together a talk-therapy group made up of sole survivors of supernatural attacks. On the surface it seems as if the doctor has just hit on a way to address the post-traumatic stress disorder these patients suffer, but almost immediately it becomes clear that there is something more going on. The novella shifts smoothly between the suspense of a supernatural threat, and the trust-and-trauma issues of a therapy group. Is there really a paranormal element that connects them? The group itself will have to decide that answer if they are to prevail, or even just survive.
Gregory brings together a good group of characters for the most part, and has some fun with the popular culture of horror monsters. Stan, an amputee in a wheelchair, was the sole survivor of a cannibal family in the 1970s. He is indignant when twenty-something Marvin, who lived through a “lizard men” attack that killed his four room-mates, has never heard of him. Harrison Harrison of Dunnsmouth has to deal with the fact that his experience was fictionalized in a comic book as “Jameson Jameson (or Jameson Squared), the Monster Detective.”
Gregory has a lot of fun with the horror genre, even though the novella is serious, horrific and scary. “Dunnsmouth,” Harrison’s home town, is a nice contraction of “Innsmouth” and “Dunwich;” places named in HP Lovecraft’s horror fiction. The isolated all-women commune that raises Greta echoes many creepy horror compounds that have shown up over the years. The homage does not overwhelm the story, though, and at least half of the suspense in the book comes from the shifting and jockeying each person does in the group, and how carefully they release bits of their stories. Soon things get serious, then they get active, and then the action really ratchets up.
I liked – well, “liked” is an odd word to use – Gregory’s imagery, particularly that of the scars on Greta’s body. They are terrifying but well thought out and strangely beautiful, just as bits of the commune, the mundane (a sprung, moldy chair, a camper up on blocks), contrast perfectly with the supernatural elements. Of all the characters, I found Harrison the most annoying; he is a bit of a know-it-all. I realize that there has to be one for the story to work, but it started to become too easy, since Harrison could effortlessly identify each monster after hearing just a few words. Still, the suspense and the action kept me reading. The story is not realistic but it is plausible, and the final action sequences have a cinematic intensity.
At the Nebula Awards, Gregory said jokingly that the novella was not a sequel to Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are All Completely Beside Ourselves. That was funnier than I realized, because Gregory borrows the first-person-plural narrative voice that Fowler used in The Jane Austen Book Club; throughout the novella, the therapy group comments as a collective on what is happening.
We were all surprised every time Stan made it to another meeting. If he was not yet knocking at death’s door, he seemed to be rolling up the access ramp to it, huffing into his mask, hauling his collection of failing organs with him.
This is difficult and always reads like a literary trick to me, but it is a good trick and Gregory pulls it off. Generally the collective voice opens a chapter, which then glides into the point of view of one of the group participants.
This is horror, and will be appreciated by horror readers. It is actually thought-provoking – what does happen to the heroes in those movies after they escape the locked haunted institution, or blow up the zombies, or cut the head off the giant snake? In We Are All Completely Fine, Gregory pulls off an original idea with drama and style.
A psychotherapist gathers a group of trauma survivors together for group therapy. The twist: all of the patients have had horrific experiences of the spooky, supernatural variety. Are they lying or hallucinating about the supernatural aspect of their traumas, or could it be real?
The therapy group is a diverse one: Harrison helped save a small part of his town from some strange disaster when he was a teen; the rest died. Stan was held captive and partially eaten by a family of cannibals — he has no hands or lower legs. Barbara’s body was cut open years ago by a scrimshander, who carved mysterious designs on her bones. Greta has a terribly scarred body and was the only survivor of a fire that killed everyone she lived with. And Martin can’t bear to ever remove his gaming glasses, for reasons he refuses to explain.
I liked living through the therapy and developing relationships between this odd group of people, without knowing (for quite a while) what was real and what was not. The story sucked me in, the characters were well-rounded and — subject matter notwithstanding — felt realistic, and there are some nice touches of humor.
This is my first time reading a book by Daryl Gregory, but it won’t be my last.
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