Pyschopomp and Circumstance
By Adrean Messmer
Published by A Murder of Storytellers
Adrean Messmer’s first novel is a complex and varied story about the interconnected social dynamics of one group of post-high school late-teens-early-twenty-somethings and the malevolent force that stalks them. It feels, in spirit, very much like a late 90s/early 00s novelization of a teen-focused horror film a la Scream, I Know What You Did Last Summer, or Phantoms. Coming from me that is, of course, a compliment.
This particular evil force is the memorable Sewercide Man (a lovely name for a monster if I ever read one), who acts more like a pathogen than a supernatural serial killer. While Messmer’s creation does call back to cinema slashers like Freddy Krueger or the Tall Man, he’s actually a blend of those movie monster tropes and a contemporary take on Lovecraftian cosmic horror. He’s in the novel just enough to have some definition in our imagination, but his menace and influence is slippery, varied, and sometimes purposefully confusing. That works to the story’s advantage.
What he truly is isn’t exactly explained, although there’s enough to go on to come to your own conclusions. We’ve got possessions, resurrections, hallucinations, malignant Facebook updates, apparitions, and good old-fashioned murder. Messmer doesn’t pull her punches with the gore or the violence, but the hardest-hitting moments of the book are the emotional plot twists and character history reveals. The human characters are, naturally, the true monsters, even when they think their own motives are pure.
It’s this group of characters that represents the novel’s strength and weakness. While we don’t have to wait long for the spookiness to commence, I had a hard time getting into the book initially because of the surface-level vanity and shallowness of their world. I am wholly uninterested in the social adventures of self-important early-twenty-somethings, and the frequent perspective shifts from character to character (many of whom seem very similar; it was hard to tell who was paired with whom, or who desired whom) made getting into a reading rhythm difficult at first. A pared-down approach to two or three main characters would have benefited the book, but I cannot fault Messmer for crafting a narrative more ambitious in scope.
This is not a book that grabs you from the first few chapters, but eventually I understood why. Yes, there is a lot to empathize with these characters, but my first impressions with most of them was decidedly negative. They seem dishonest with each other and themselves, they are too worried about what other people think, and I couldn’t care less about the post-high school social/party scene.
But that is, very much, the point. The characters are not actually shallow—but some of them actively work hard to appear shallow. It’s a tough balance to strike: writing a book that’s both interesting and a subtle critique of young adult social culture. By the book’s final pages, the characters have become real and raw, and even (and especially) in their last moments in the story (no spoilers, but death comes swiftly and liberally), we see our own shortcomings. Not all of us might be in that age group anymore, but we can recognize the masks we don and the lies we tell each other and ourselves. Social signaling and self-deception doesn’t go away just because you’re in your 30s.
Pyschopomp and Circumstance comes recommended for its originality and its character and plot arcs, especially for fans of late 90s/early 00s mainstream horror cinema. There’s a couple too many characters and plot twists for the book’s own good, but Messmer’s ambition with the plot makes them forgivable. The ending few chapters are an apocalyptic, blood-soaked joy to read, and the emotional gut punches hit pretty damn hard. Slow to start but with a big payoff, Messmer’s novel demonstrates her growing talent as a long-form writer, and her remarkable ability to use established cinematic and literary tropes in creative and disarming ways.