Book Review: Grind Your Bones to Dust by Nicholas Day

“The perfect blend of character, voice and setting, Grind Your Bones to Dust is cause for celebration. As is an author whose tremendous ability as a storyteller is only growing with every publication.”

 

Nominated for both a This Is Horror Award and a Wonderland Award, Nicholas Day has produced work that is either bizarro, or horror, or a blend of these and more genres. And, given the nominations, his work has impressed readers and reviewers alike. With two short story collections and two novellas to his name, it was clear that he had mastered storytelling in the shorter form. But would a novel be as warmly received? And what form would a novel from someone as unrestrained by genre and structure conventions as Day take?

Essentially it is one story told in four separate, yet intertwining, parts. Each part is told from the point of view of different characters, with their own distinct voices, something Day does so well. The first part begins with Louis Loving running for his life. He and business partner, Elliot, are in the desert surveying land for the new Interstate Highway, when they are attacked by four man-eating donkeys. It sounds ridiculous when put plainly, but the way the attack is described is nothing short of terrifying. It makes for a powerful opening to the book and gives the reader just a glimpse of the tremendous violence they can expect. Louis survives, mainly due to the actions of a local farmer and his family who are familiar with the terrifying beasts. But the action quickly escalates and the stakes are raised. Day sprinkles nuggets of information throughout the narrative, hinting at the wife and child Louis has left behind to travel the country surveying with his best friend, and a tense relationship with his brother. It all makes for compelling reading. As does the voice of the characters, speaking with the cadence of honest, hardworking, simple folk, yet brimming with intelligence and fascinating insight.

Part two is singularly set on the troubled and disturbing mind of Louis’s brother, James Hayte. Obsessed with finding “his” Ruth (Louis’s wife), he ventures out of the forest home he shared with his father and embarks on a blood-soaked mission. He offers pearls of wisdom and preaching to anyone he meets, yet they are never words of comfort and are more likely to send chills down the spine of anyone who encounters him, including the reader. His are the actions of a depraved madman, the acts of gratuitous violence shocking and wicked. But it is clear to us that Day doesn’t include these moments simply for shock value; this is a truly disturbed and violent character, and the author seems to be only committed to portraying his characters in the most genuine and natural way. Once James is unleashed on the surrounding community who either help him find his Ruth or suffer the consequences of their unwillingness, his character unravels in the most naturally malevolent way possible. The extremes to which he will go are very chilling and are not for the faint-of-heart but neither is this book. It is beautifully written and endlessly quotable, but Day is unflinching in his devotion to delivering the complete story, which includes the deranged James Hayte. One small glimmer of light in this part is Hayte’s interaction with his companion, a large raven whose skull is devoid of flesh and whose eyes often flash red. The bird identifies itself as Josh Billings, which is the pen name of 19th century American humourist Henry Wheeler Shaw, and its speech is written down on the page as Billings wrote. Although often light-hearted, their interactions don’t disguise the fact that Billings is equally as vicious as Hayte, and often quotes lines from his own work to encourage Hayte on his path.

The third part is told in first person, from the point of view of Elliot’s son, Nicky. He writes a letter to childhood friend, Daniel Loving, pretending it is from Daniel’s mother, Ruth, informing him of his father’s disappearance. When Daniel returns home, it soon becomes clear that there is much more to the friendship than meets the eye, not least of all a simmering resentment. As with the previous acts, layers of detail are subtly added to the back stories of the characters, offering insight in one breath, while creating intrigue in the next. Questions are posed and answered throughout, most often at different times, keeping the reader invested. The friction between family members and friends is compelling enough. But the added dimension of the supernatural and horrific elements only drives the tension even harder. Accompanied by two more seasoned travellers, Nicky and Danny venture out into the desert in search of their fathers, only to encounter both man-eating donkeys and a crazed murderer. The circumstances of the meeting – at night and in the middle of nowhere – proves to be most unsettlingly effective, as too is the portrayal of the passage of time.

The final act serves as both the story of the elusive Ruth, and the culmination of the entire story. Here each separate narrative strand, which has been slowly winding together through Day’s remarkable storytelling, is suddenly tightly coiled. The wife of Louis, object of James’s unhinged desire, and mother of Danny, Ruth sits at the very centre of the tale. We learn about her own sad past, the one shared with James and Louis, and how it has made her the woman she has become. She proves to be as fallible as any other human being, and revelations soon spill out to bring the story to an explosive ending.

The structure of the story—delivered in four parts and with details hinted at in earlier pages to be unfurled later—is handled with such intricate care that can only be attributed to a gifted storyteller. Whether plotter or pantser, it takes an author of tremendous skill and determination to pull it off. The unique voice of each narrator is captured perfectly; even the voice of one of the most wicked characters we’ve ever encountered, which would be troubling, if Day’s warmth and generosity weren’t so widely displayed through his online interactions with fans. That such a well-balanced author can so easily convey the darkness at the heart of a monster is equally awe-inspiring and envy-inducing. And his command of language is breath-taking. We used the term “endlessly quotable” earlier and we’d challenge any reader to go more than a couple of pages without finding a sentence or passage that doesn’t evoke emotion or imagery. Not everyone enjoys rereading a book, but this one is filled with so much great content and literary references (some of which no doubt went over our heads first time around) that it will surely be as rewarding after the third or fourth read as it was the first time.

With Grind Your Bones to Dust, Day takes us on a tense journey down a dark, desolate road. And the lights are out. Veer too much to one side and we are rewarded with unapologetic violence, both natural and supernatural. Pull to the other side and we experience the full range of human emotion through the eyes of wonderfully vivid characters, including one man gripped by madness and another who is haunted by it. And it isn’t our hands on the steering wheel. All we can do is sit back, put our faith in our guide, and enjoy the ride. The perfect blend of character, voice and setting, Grind Your Bones to Dust is cause for celebration. As is an author whose tremendous ability as a storyteller is only growing with every publication.

THOMAS JOYCE

Publisher: Excession Press
Paperback: 212 (pps)
Release Date: 10 October 2019

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