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Why the Best Horror Book of 2020 is Clown in a Cornfield

Clown in a Cornfield
Clown in a Cornfield, cover

To an extent, the title of Adam Cesare’s latest book, Clown in a Cornfield, feels like an affront to expectations. We have a YA horror book about teens navigating social media, high school, and rage-filled teachers all hinging on the promise of an actual clown possibly picking off kids in a cornfield. Having read Cesare’s excellent, and surprisingly meta, cannibal movie homage Tribesmen, which shows a profound love and understanding for 1970s horror cinema, I knew something else was hiding in the fields. And that something turned the book into one of the best examples of horror fiction in the context of Trump’s America, and the year’s best in the process.

Clown in a Cornfield follows Quinn, a high schooler that moves into the town of Kettle Springs with her dad following the death of her mom. Now an ex-city girl, Quinn goes about understanding the town and its people but also the looming presence of its recent past, the thing that divides the town into those who see progress as moving forward and those who see it as keeping up with traditions. This is where the titular clown comes in. The rest deserves to be read.

The setup is deceptively recognizable, seemingly on purpose. The story starts with a look at Quinn and her dad going though a short adjustment period, Quinn in particular getting to know the people she’ll eventually get to rely on to survive the deadly events that clown authors.

Cesare takes his time putting every piece in place before taking the reader through a hellish gauntlet of inventive slasher violence, all of which takes cues from John Carpenter, Wes Craven, and a lot of 1990’s horror movie imagery if only to build on them and make them his own. Once the killing begins, the book settles into high tension and doesn’t let up even when commenting on the ideas that prop up the story.

The buildup to the clown horror comes with a few twists on the formula that sets this story apart from the conventional slasher. The teens that drive the story don’t fit the traditional mold of jock, nerd, hot, or final girl characters of old. Instead, Cesare skillfully dodges some of the sexual and “school as a rite of passage” subtexts that govern a lot of classic slasher stories in favor of showing a group of teens that more genuinely reflects the current state of American society.

Adam Cesare

Instead of prom and homecoming queen and king competitions or relationship woes tied to characters losing their virginity, Cesare creates a cast of young Americans that talk about guns, are comfortable around them, and know how to handle them; that embrace social media and make it a point to flirt with its most dangerous aspects; and who know perfectly well what they represent to the older townsfolk (hints of The Lost Boys here).

Kettle Springs is a small town where it’s not hard to imagine every other car sporting a ‘Make America Great Again’ bumper sticker. And yet, the book doesn’t judge the entirety of the town for its conservative leanings. On the contrary, it provides a more complicated human panorama of it, with varying degrees of political inclinations even within the targeted group.

This is perhaps one of the most impressive things Cesare accomplishes with his characters. He breaks away from the black and white morality of the traditional slasher, in which the ‘good’ teens and the ‘bad’ teens could be identified from a mile away, in favor of presenting teens that are not just different from one another but also from the preconceived notions we have of them. This bleeds over into the book’s take on what small-town America was, is, and could be.

Explaining what Cesare does with slasher morality in the story would result in spoiling some the book’s biggest surprises, but it does make for one hell of a killer clown. Frendo is a part of the town’s economic history, being the face of an abandoned factory that at one point was at the heart of Kettle Springs. He was a symbol of success at one point only to later become an imposing symbol of defeat.

Frendo wastes not a single instance of violence on simplicity. Every death, blood spurt, or dismemberment is masterfully choreographed, unafraid to go into detail, leaving the reader with just enough information to let him or her fill in the rest. It’s also hauntingly realistic in parts. Whereas many slasher movies go over the top to create memorable death sequences, Clown in a Cornfield keeps things more plausible, holding back to make the more explosively violent parts truly unforgettable.

Frendo is one unsettling clown, but what drives the killings and how sinister things get in the process is what really scared me to the core. Unlike the Freddies and the Jasons of the genre, Frendo is one killer I completely believe can come after me. Whereas the aforementioned slashers are known for carrying a sense of dark fantasy and myth about them, Frendo seems like an actual inevitability should America continue on the path it’s currently on.

Adam Cesare gave us an important horror book in 2020, one that hits closer to the real horrors America has lived through these past four years. Its commentary on tradition, progress, and what’s expected of newer generations is as sobering as it is terrifying. Give Clown in a Cornfield a read and make sure your windows are closed and your doors locked because Frendo isn’t the stuff of nightmares. It’s the stuff of reality.

Graphic Policy’s Top Comic Picks this Week!

Wednesdays are new comic book day! Each week hundreds of comics are released, and that can be pretty daunting to go over and choose what to buy. That’s where we come in!

We’re bringing back something we haven’t done for a while, what the team thinks. Our contributors are choosing up to five books each week and why they’re choosing the books.

Find out what folks think below, and what comics you should be looking out for this Wednesday.

Paul

Top Pick: X-Men Gold #3 (Marvel) – This title has been everything I was hoping for and it’s only 3 issues in. I love the line up, love that they’re out being heroes again and they’re out to show that ‘mutant’ isn’t a bad word. Very excited to see this rematch with the Brotherhood and hoping Magma hasn’t switched sides for good.

Jean Grey #1 (Marvel) – I love seeing Jean and the other time displaced X-Men now working with Magneto over in X-Men Blue and I’m more then a little curious to see how a title with only Jean will play out. Of course it’s going to be Phoenix centric, we all knew that. I just hope they explore this Jean Grey a little more deeply and forge something new with her, and not just an eventual host to the Phoenix for things to play out like they have so many times before.

Secret Empire #1 (Marvel) – This is just getting started and I can’t wait for someone to knock Steve Rogers down a peg or two. I have mixed feelings about this event; I absolutely hate what Marvel as let happen to the character and all the back peddling to try and re-imagine Hydra into something we all know it isn’t. But, I am looking forward to seeing how the rest of the heroes are going to band together to knock Hydra flat on its ass. Just hoping this doesn’t fall into the ‘ho hum’ category most of Marvel’s recent events have stumbled into.

 

Alex

Top Pick: Batman And Bill (Hulu) – While you’d usually expect to find a (Valiant) comic in this spot, this week one of the very few things I’m genuinely excited for is the Hulu exclusive documentary about Bill Finger. If you’re a Batman fan and you don’t know who Bill finger is, and what Bob Kane did to him, then be prepared for an emotional story that should make you angry. I’ve been waiting for this for months… May 6th can’t get here fast enough.

 

Joe

Top Pick: FCBD Comics – FREE COMIC BOOK DAY COMICS!!!!! What’s not to love about free comics? Remember to go to your local comic book store and get yours!

Batman #22 (DC Comics) – What an ending of The Flash and Batman #21. Especially who Bruce sees at the end. Right in the feels. I am liking The Button so far and want more!

Superman #22 (DC Comics) – One of my favorite books every time it comes out. The Superman Reborn arc looks to be wild, and this along with Action Comics is even better.

Catalyst Prime Noble #1 (Lion Forge) – A new universe with a diverse cast of heroes and creators. I’ve been hyped for this for awhile!

Secret Empire #1 (Marvel) – Maybe I am a sucker, but I am still excited for this event. I want to see where the heck they go with this crazy story. Please don’t be another CWII.

 

Shay

Top Pick: Jean Grey #1 (Marvel) – I read this one before I consigned it and I like it. It has a male writer but, it isn’t utter crap. It’s well written , plausible , fresh & on point.

Top Pick: Harley Quinn #19 (DC Comics) – The “Deadly Sin” arc is ending and Harley’s about to remind these fools why she’s not the woman to mess with! I’ve got popcorn and, I’m ready !

Hawkeye #6 (Marvel) – This arc keeps turning it up to 11 and I’m all the way here for female mentorship, strength and badassery!

 

Brett

Top Pick: Slasher #1 (Alternative Comics/Floating World Comics) – Charles Forsman’s new series about a woman discovering her sexuality and penchant for blood.

Abirato #1 (Lion Forge) – Rebels taking on corporate powers that control a city and vaccine that allows a lifespan of hundreds of years? Sign me up.

Catalyst Prime Noble #1 (Lion Forge) – A whole new world that’s really thought and featuring diverse characters, diverse voices writing them, and diverse individuals on art. In other words, it’s already ahead of so many others.

Eternal Empire #1 (Image Comics) – Sarah Vaughn and Jonathan Luna team up again, this time for a fantasy series. If you missed their Alex + Ada, you missed out on an amazing series and this one I expect to be just as good.

Youngblood #1 (Image Comics) – I’m looking forward to this, I’ll admit it. I’m fully expecting turn my brain off fun or the reading experience of slowing down to look at a car wreck. Either way….

A 5 page Preview of Charles Forsman’s New Psychosexual Thriller Slasher

Meet Christina, a data-entry specialist in her early twenties. Seemingly timid and plain to her coworkers she harbors dangerous urges. A lion of sexual violence bubbles just below the surface. The only soul she shares these feelings with is a terminal boy named Joshua in a wheelchair that lives several states away. They strike up a love through the internet but have to keep it hidden from Joshua’s strict and over-attentive mother. Will these two broken people get the freedom to love each other or will Christina’s monster escape its cage and scratch that violent itch that taunts her?

A psychosexual thriller in the tradition of the films of Brian de Palma and David Cronenberg. This 5 issue series by Charles Forsman and published by Floating World Comics will leave you breathless and heartbroken.

Slasher #1 is available to order in this month’s Diamond Previews catalog – FEB171109

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