Rating: 2.5 out of 5
Elias Witherow’s horror novel The Black Farm, about what happens after you commit suicide, is a wildly mixed bag. He says in his author’s note that he wants to bring “fresh concepts” to and “breathe new life into” the horror genre. While much of this book is in fact surprisingly original, there are veins of terribly stale stereotypes and tropes shot through it. Some very unfortunate ones, in fact.
Nick and Jess are at the end of their ropes. Jess had a miscarriage, Nick’s father died in an accident, Nick lost his job, he received an eviction notice, and Jess’s sister was diagnosed with terminal cancer. They decide there’s only one way to handle their problems: a joint suicide. When they take a whole lot of sleeping pills, Nick wakes up in a very strange place. The sun is a sickly ball of red dripping black fluid. Red tears rend the sky. A disfigured monster of a man is dragging him into a building, where he’s told that he’s on the Black Farm ruled by The Pig. When Heaven and Hell couldn’t decide what to do with those who committed suicide, they compromised by creating this place. The Pig was put in place over it, and it went a little crazy. Now the abominations created by The Pig (the Pig-Born) torture and kill people over and over, and they’re repeatedly reborn onto the Farm to suffer and die again. Nick is frantic with worry for Jess, and determined to find her any way he has to.
Content note: Suicide and suicidal ideation. Rape and torture. Dismemberment. “Breeding” monstrosities. Cannibalism. Vomit. Fatphobia, as well as racial stereotype, and the stereotype of the “perfect woman.”
I’ll get the bad parts over with. The vast majority of the bad guys are fat, and the stereotypical fat = evil trope is heavily drawn. The only Black character lived in “the projects” and killed himself with a drug overdose. Jess is the most insanely perfect woman ever: perfectly pure, perfectly loving, perfectly understanding, perfectly supportive at every turn. She barely talks, is a victim in need of rescuing, and meekly does everything Nick tells her to. She’s so thoroughly one-note on her pedestal it’s ridiculous; she’s a shining beacon of “no real woman could ever remotely live up to this.” The other woman who shows up, Megan, is largely there to suffer so that Nick can be pushed into his character development. There’s also a very big theme of “you had no idea how good you had it and you should have appreciated it while you could” with respect to people who are suicidal, and that’s incredibly unempathetic. There’s a character who, within five minutes of meeting Nick, casually spills all his greatest weaknesses to Nick. I facepalmed. The book could also use another editing pass.
There are some aspects of the worldbuilding that don’t make sense to me. The island on which the Black Farm is found isn’t huge, yet it seems almost sparsely populated. If no one can die without being reformed in another location on the island, and every suicide arrives here, and apparently women can have children here, then how on earth is there no overpopulation? How are there not human children running around? For that matter, why does everyone speak English? When people die on the Farm and are reformed, they clearly return in some sort of better health than when they died, so are there any effects that linger? Since food and drinking water are hard to come by, can someone starve/dehydrate to death? Is it possible to become ill? Is clothing reformed as well? I don’t need every question answered, but I need to feel like the author has a handle on how things work, and I don’t.
I don’t often read “extreme” horror; I made an exception for this one because I saw the book recommended a lot on a certain books of horror group. I will give the author this: he makes the nastier content absolutely integral to and necessary to the plot, which is what I want when I read extreme horror. It’s key to how Nick changes and what he accomplishes; it isn’t heaped on for sheer titillation.
The idea of the Black Farm is absolutely fascinating. It’s this little somewhat-out-of-control reality with an all-too-vain godlet running it. The Pig wants the power its betters have–it wants to create life, and a world. It isn’t mindlessly evil. It leaves me wanting to know more, and I like that. Nick’s journey from loving boyfriend desperate to find his girlfriend to insane badass doing every last thing he can think to do is what made this an otherwise good book for me.