Top positive review
“Don’t Look into His Eyes”
September 22, 2018
In his Foreword to Justin M. Woodward’s Tamer Animals (2018) author James Newman states Woodward summed up his latest book as “like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre meets Stand by Me.” That is a pretty accurate, tidy description of what awaits the reader of Tamer Animals. In the summer of 2005, four high school friends decide to pull a fast one on their parents, skipping out on a church sponsored campout and go camping by themselves near the Coheelee Creek Covered Bridge outside of Dothan, Alabama. Patrick Hall, John Queen, Dean Fredrick, and the extraordinarily always horny Tim Johnson all know about the campgrounds to which they aspire: “The place had a reputation for being the place where people go when they want to do drugs and have sex, but Patrick and his friends were interested in the area for other reasons. Coheelee Creek was where you went if you wanted to see a ghost, and all the kids knew it.” What they don’t know is they have a stowaway in their Chevy Suburban: Patrick’s younger brother, Sam. Worse, they don’t know the truth of the evil and horrors which await them near Coheelee Creek Covered Bridge… but, unfortunately, they will find out.
Tamer Animals is Woodward’s third novel and it is exciting to see a younger writer making strides toward becoming a more impressive writer. His storytelling in Tamer Animals continues to be as vivid and as immediate as in his first novel, The Variant (2016), but has a wider range of characters, a somewhat more developed plot, utilizes and enhances upon a real and historic area, and contains a more elaborate style of narration.
One of the boys, Dean, comes better equipped than the other boys with knowledge of the camping area having read on the Internet about “the Hanging Tree” where Klansmen hanged a black goat farmer in the 1930s. Neither the tree nor the vicinity has been free of legendary terrors ever since.
Despite providing essential background on the boys’ personal and family life, Woodward’s novel progresses quickly and the boys hike to their destination and the author fills the tale with plenty of atmosphere and the feeling the boys are being watched. The novel takes a rapid and drastic turn when the shadows of the woods close in on them and some of the boys disappear. By no measure are the boys alone and their troubles have just begun.
Woodward drags readers along with his characters into a nightmare of inhuman lust, gore, blood and guts far from a mere ghost story and disparate from the opening of the novel. What the campers encounter in Tamer Animals has been covered by numerous modern horror novels and movies, almost becoming a horror subgenre, but Woodward attempts to give his story a slightly different take with the legend of the Goatman and by upping the ante on the violence and extreme terrors going on in a decaying farmhouse filled with most shocking excesses in the woods. Toward the very end of the novel Woodward also introduces a bit of a provocative “inconvenient truth” about humans in general which is not often to be found in such stories.
Tamer Animals contains an occasional grammatical error and at least one improbable, over-the-top scene but these are far less distracting than can be found in his first novel. This is further indication of Woodward’s growth as a writer and one who is already providing readers who desire a fast-moving tale of grisly vileness exactly what is likely to please them most. Woodward is a writer well worth watching. [NOTE: In an opening Acknowledgements, Woodward suggests readers do themselves “a favor” and read The Variant before Tamer Animals. Doing so does give readers a fuller explanation about a character introduced in the later portions of Tamer Animals and it is a creative link between the two works. Tamer Animals can, however, be read satisfyingly as a stand-alone novel.]