Flesh Rehearsal is undoubtedly a work of dark genius. I say this knowing full well the word genius is frequently overused in contemporary discourse, and often awarded to work that is simply shocking or experimental, as though this were the only barometer of worth. However, Brian Bowyer’s novel is the real deal, a morbid beast of a book that explores existential questions such as what happens when we die, that comments on modern culture and our obsession with violence and sex, and, most surprisingly of all, shows how true love can stand in the face of darkness.
I often start my reviews by saying there is so much to unpack that it’s hard to know where to begin, but this is especially true of Brian Bowyer’s novel. His style is economic, which doesn’t mean that Bowyer doesn’t occasionally flex his poetic muscles for a passage of wonderful (or horrifying) description, but ultimately his preference seems to be cutting the bone—pun fully intended. This means that whilst the novel is a lean three hundred and sixty pages, more happens in the first fifty than in most trilogies.
One of the great distinguishing trademarks of the Russian novelists, particularly Tolstoy, was their use of action. Tolstoy’s prose is full of verbs, of doing, of movement. This creates a sense that the characters are dynamic and alive. Yes, there is introspection, but even the introspection feels active somehow. It’s as though all the characters and even places are caught in a kind of eternal stream, a ceaseless motion. Indeed, Tolstoy actively comments on this at times, calling this ceaseless movement “God”. Bowyer’s Flesh Rehearsal is similarly active. His verb tenses are almost never passive. All his characters are constantly alive and in motion, which gives the narrative an unstoppable momentum. Once I was hooked into the characters, and got a sense of who they were, I couldn’t stop reading.
This is a nice segue into the characters, who are—not to put too fine a point on it—fucking bananas. Firstly, there’s Gretchen and her sister Abby (a sly nod to Grady Hendrix’s My Best Friend’s Exorcism or pure coincidence?), who have suffered a lifetime of abuse at the hands of their father. These are arguably the most grounded characters in the book. We sympathise with their plight and we want the best for them. But we also recognise that, due to their upbringing, there’s a darkness in them too. And this darkness is expressed in strangely theatrical soliloquies about the nature of black holes, and death, and evil. In another book, these might feel out of place, but Bowyer’s masterstroke is really his setting, a setting that contextualises these surreal moments and makes them feel earned.
Dean Koontz once observed that, “I can forgive a writer a lot if they can wield a warp and weft of mood”. Flesh Rehearsal oozes mood. Every page is laden with Gothic dread. Though the novel is set in America, and the main action of the plot takes place in L. A., it is not the L.A. you can visit, it is the secret “dark side of the moon”, the side hidden from the conscious mind, an underbelly blacker than sin and certainly magical. Though Flesh Rehearsal is grounded in our world and real suffering and emotions, it is also unashamedly mysterious and supernatural. Bowyer taps into the sense that all of us, even staunch atheists, have had, that there is a world beyond our own just out of reach, and this life is just a “flesh rehearsal” for it. Occasionally, this world encroaches upon our own, and sometimes it drives men and women insane with what it reveals.
The strange characters inhabiting this dark fantasyland therefore feel like they are in their natural habitat. Out of the six main characters, four of them turn out to be either murderers or serial killers. The majority of these reveals aren’t big narrative revelations, by the way, it’s just part and parcel of living in this deeply fucked up world. One of the characters may or may not be gifted with superhuman powers—such as unnaturally long life and supernatural strength—as a result of appeasing the “gods of death”. Another is a prize-fighter who specialises in death-matches. But she also has a sensitive side and writes graphic novels.
Several of these characters are in a heavy metal band called Noctourniquet.
Let that name sink in.
As you’re hopefully beginning to realise, there’s little I can really do to prepare you for reading this book. It’s an experience as much as a narrative, a headlong plunge into abyssal black waters from which you may not emerge the same as when you went in. But having said that it’s an experience, the narrative in the Flesh Rehearsal is incredibly strong, governed as it is by the characters and their desires. Boiled down to its barest, barest parts, the book might be said to be a love-story. It’s girl meets girl, both of them damaged, but each of them capable of healing the other. The sweetness of this love-story is, I think, the secret to the book’s success, for without it the darkness of the world would surely overwhelm us.
And speaking of darkness, the second major component of the book is a thread that is deftly woven throughout the novel of a serial killer called The Lobotomiser killing women across L.A.. As I’ve already mentioned, there are several serial killers in this book, and we follow quite a few of them, but The Lobotomiser is distinguished from the others for the sheer awfulness of his murders and vile desecrations. Some scenes in this book will turn your stomach and make you nauseous—you have been warned.
The Lobotomiser is the king of the killers, and L. A. is his playground. We start with a very distant perspective on him: rumours and news reports, gossip and glimpses, but slowly we move closer and closer until we finally realise who The Lobotomiser is. The way the revelation is handled is sheer brilliance—Bowyer gives us just enough to know, to work it out for ourselves, and as a result it raises the hairs on the back of the neck. The novel reaches its climax when The Lobotomiser crosses paths with one of our star-crossed lovers. The tension of these concluding chapters is frankly deleterious to one’s health—we know exactly how bad it’s going to be if The Lobotomiser gets what he wants (seriously, it’s worse than you think). The stakes are real, and this makes the narrative electrifying.
But if this summed the narrative, then I still probably could not give Flesh Rehearsal the hard-earned descriptor of “genius”. There is another thread running through the narrative, however, the story of a twisted and conflicted Gollum-like man called Ludlow, and this is what takes it to the next level. Ludlow was undoubtedly my favourite character in the story: a drummer, a drug-addict, and a schizophrenic wrestling with reality itself. His chapters feature a wondrous intermixture of pitch-black humour and hair-raising terror. He is a dreadful person yet we also pity him because he does not seem to be in control (hence my comparison to Gollum, it is as if he has two sides).
Clive Barker once wrote in Imajica, “in any fiction, no matter how ambitious its scope or profound its theme, there [is] only ever room for three players. Between warring kings, a peacemaker; between adoring spouses, a seducer, or a child. Between twins, the spirit of the womb. Between lovers, Death.” Ludlow, to my mind, embodies this third actor or player, this dynamic element that cannot be predicted but we know will serve some greater narrative purpose. This purpose is fully realised at the end of the book where, like Gollum, Ludlow’s evil comes to serve good—it sends chills down my spine just thinking about it. And perhaps the most spine-tingling aspect is that Ludlow finally gets to have a moment of control, where he chooses—character development at its finest.
Whilst Flesh Rehearsal is undoubtedly gonzo—one might even say borderline bizarro—it juxtaposes hyper-violence, drug-use, serial killers, vampires, and steaming-hot lesbian erotica with moments of profound pathos. I'd like to hope the world is not as dark or full of killers as Brian Bowyer’s version of L.A., yet artists use lies to tell the truth, and we see in it a mirror of the human condition and the struggle of being alive.
Stephen King once described H. P. Lovecraft as horror’s “dark and baroque prince”. After reading Flesh Rehearsal, I have to conclude that the title has a new bearer.
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