Gabino Iglesias Reviews What Kind of Mother by Clay McLeod Chapman – Locus Online


What Kind of Mother, Clay McLeod Chapman (Quirk Books 978-1-68369-380-2, $21.99, 304pp, hc) September 2023.

Clay McLeod’s Chapman’s What Kind of Moth­er is a great horror novel in which creepiness and body horror take a back seat to grief and the horror it pushes people to do. A story that’s as harrowing as it is sad and strange, What Kind of Mother is a superb addition to McLeod’s catalog and proof that he is quickly becoming one of the strongest voices in contemporary horror fiction.

Madi Price left her hometown of Brandywine VA and raised her daughter elsewhere. It was never easy, but she never thought she’d come back. Then the man who walked out of her life becomes obsessed with making amends and ends up developing a relationship with their 17-year-old daughter, which forces Madi to come back to her hometown. Unfortunately, things back home are as rough as they’ve ever been, and Madi is forced to live in a crappy motel and constantly struggles to make it to the end of the month while working as a palm reader at her place and at the local farmers market on the weekends.

She’s working at the farmers market when Henry McCabe, an old flame from her school days, walks, broken and much older, back into her life. Henry now works as a fisherman and lives in the shadow of his son’s mysterious disappearance. Skyler, Henry’s son, was a baby when he went missing half a decade earlier, which led to a lot of heartbreak and made his mother commit suicide. Everyone in town is convinced Skyler is dead, but Henry still holds on to the hope of finding his son. When Madi reads his palm, they both feel something special, and Henry becomes convinced Madi was put in his path to help him find Skyler. After a lot of looking, Madi and Henry find someone who might be Skyler, but Madi knows there are many reasons why the strange child they encounter – a kid Henry wants to keep a secret – can’t be Skyler. What follows is a wet, strange nightmare about grief, loss, and holding on to something when nothing’s left.

What Kind of Mother is one of those horror narratives in which the biggest, ugliest mon­sters aren’t made of flesh; they’re made of pain. McLeod clearly had fun writing the classic hor­ror passages that are sprinkled throughout this novel, especially in the second half. However, grief is the biggest monster from the opening pages, and it only grows and becomes more multifaceted as the narrative progresses. Madi is a good person, and it’s easy to empathize with her, so once things get very dark and incred­ibly strange, it’s easy for readers to stick with her even if everything in their bones is telling them Madi should run away as far as possible and never look back.

Contemporary horror brings together ele­ments from a plethora of genres, and this novel is a perfect example of that. A novel that’s clearly supernatural horror, it also brings into play ele­ments from mystery, domestic suspense, and even a bit of romance. Also, McLeod knows how to deliver strangeness and gore (there are two scenes – one in a bathtub and one with a horseshoe crab – that are worth the price of ad­mission all by themselves), but he understands that the stuff that stays with readers long after they’ve turned the last page is the stuff that hits them in the feelings, and he delivers plenty of that here. I think Ghost Eaters, which is a great novel, placed McLeod on the map, but What Kind of Mother is even better, and it should become the novel that brings McLeod the ac­colades he deserves.

Gabino Iglesias is a writer, journalist, professor, and book reviewer living in Austin TX. He is the author of Zero Saints and Coyote Songs and the editor of Both Sides. His work has been nominated to the Bram Stoker and Locus Awards and won the Wonderland Book Award for Best Novel in 2019. His short stories have appeared in a plethora of anthologies and his non-fiction has appeared in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and CrimeReads. His work has been published in five languages, optioned for film, and praised by authors as diverse as Roxane Gay, David Joy, Jerry Stahl, and Meg Gardiner. His reviews appear regularly in places like NPR, Publishers Weekly, the San Francisco Chronicle, Criminal Element, Mystery Tribune, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, the Los Angeles Review of Books, and other print and online venues. He’s been a juror for the Shirley Jackson Awards twice and has judged the PANK Big Book Contest, the Splatterpunk Awards, and the Newfound Prose Prize. He teaches creative writing at Southern New Hampshire University’s online MFA program. You can find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.

This review and more like it in the December and January 2023 issue of Locus.

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