"The Fleshless Man" Book Review
Written by Norman Prentiss
2012, 154 pages, Fiction
Book released on October 9th, 2012
I always look forward to the novellas each month from the Delirium Book Club. Not only do they deliver solid entertainment without fail, but so far they have been in two camps: authors that I'm already familiar with and like their work or authors that I make a note of to read more from. With The Fleshless Man, it falls into the former. While I haven't read much by Norman Prentiss, I have really enjoyed his work I've read in various anthologies. So when I checked my Kindle for the latest downloads, I knew I would not be disappointed.
The Fleshless Man finds Curtis unwillingly staying at his childhood home because his mother has taken ill and could go any day. His brother Glen has never moved out and has been diligently taking care of the matriarch as she has progressively gotten worse, and Curtis is dealing with both the guilt of the lack of closeness between him and his family and the guilt of feeling partially responsible for his brother still living at home. Topping that is Curtis is an exercise freak to the point of anorexia, which Glen thinks is partially his fault for constantly needling his brother about his weight since they were children.
There are times when I really struggle with the words for a review on something I enjoyed because the plot is so...blah And The Fleshless Man really does have a mediocre overall plot. Mom sick, son comes home, everyone is uncomfortable. There is nothing new here. Hell, even the horror aspect to it takes a back seat to what Curtis is going through with his mother's situation, and the little there is is really the most compelling part of the novella.
About a quarter of the way into the book, the nurse that cares for Curtis' mother tells a terrifying tale of a ship carrying some pretty horrific cargo back in the late seventeenth-, early eighteenth-century. Living cargo. I'll let you read for yourself what that ship was actually transporting, and what ultimately happened to it, and while I would eat up an entire novel of that boat's adventures, it certainly lays the groundwork of the rest of the novella.
As I mentioned, there's not a lot of terror in The Fleshless Man. But what's interesting is once the tale of the ship is told, things get a little creepier. It reminds me of an old TV episode — from what I think was Tales from the Crypt — about a bed-ridden grandmother. I can't remember much of the episode at all except that it was terrifying on how she would yell from that room. Hell, I don't even remember if they showed her or not. I just remember the yelling. There's a primitive fear we all have of death, and that episode did something right because it's still in my head all of these years later. The Fleshless Man is like that, too.
Prentiss doesn't necessarily scare you in the sense of the boogie man (although that is an aspect of this novella). What he does nail here is how terrifying and emotionally draining someone on their deathbed is. Terrifying because it could be you. Emotionally draining because of the obvious. I don't know what may have been going on in Prentiss' life when he wrote this piece, but I would absolutely be stunned if he didn't live through it himself (not the boogie man part, the close family member dying part). That's what makes this novella so powerful because it's so true to life. It doesn't necessarily tap into your fears of the unrealistic, but instead digs deep into the terror surrounding death, be it yours or someone close to you.
I wish Prentiss had developed the titular character more here, as its introduction just feels like this incredible tease to something more (which I really hope it is). At the end of the day, The Fleshless Man is a story that's been told a thousand times before, but because Prentiss is such a skilled writer, he was able make it interesting if not completely fresh. Having seen my mother go through something similar as Curtis', the novella hit home. With The Fleshless Man, Prentiss was able to put into words everything I felt — the fear, the anxiety, the pain and sorrow and the relief — during that period in my life and it's scary good how he does it. So, because of this, I admit to my bias on this book. But because he was able to do this, something that is no doubt not easy, he should get credit regardless of my bias.
The Fleshless Man may fail when it comes to horror in the traditional sense, and not really utilizing the titular character to the fullest advantage hurts this piece some. But the way Prentiss is able to tap into our fear and sorrow of death and the unknown not only saves it from being a wash but elevates it to a novella I will no doubt read again.