Hello my dear friends, and welcome to the New Year. I hope 2023 is going to be a blessed, productive, and rewarding one for you. Let’s make 2023 the year of magic. And speaking of magic, there are few things more magical than a great book. Today, I am reviewing Ashley Lister’s Conversations With Dead Serial Killers, a black as night horror-comedy with layers of Dantean symbolism to boot.
I’ve written previously that one can tell the merits of an author’s work often by the first line alone. If what I’ve said is true, and not just pretension on my part, then Lister’s work is clearly up there with the greats, because his opening line is an absolute humdinger:
“The thing that few people appreciated about Ed Gein was his skill as a seamstress.”
That pretty much sets the razor-sharp, blackly comic, and morally grey tone of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers.
Stylistically, Ashley Lister reads like grimdark Terry Pratchett. He shares Pratchett’s flare for comedic timing (which is exceptionally difficult to pull off in prose), as well as Pratchett’s ability to marry the perfect character to the perfect environment to generate organic hilarity. However, unlike Pratchett, Lister is also a master of gut-wrenching body horror, who has taken more than a few tips out of Clive Barker’s handbook. As a result, you have an interesting juxtaposition of laugh-out-loud humour and scenes that will remain indelibly imprinted on your mind’s eye for their sheer visceral horror.
The premise of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers is a stroke of genius. Derek and Clive are two brothers working in business together. Derek is a charlatan medium who does live performances, communicating with dead loved ones. Clive is his “behind the scenes” guy who drip feeds him researched information to make the cold readings sound authentic. However, Clive is also a serial killer (don’t worry, we find this out in chapter one, so it’s not a major spoiler). And not only this, but Derek is about to encounter his first real spirit, who has come back to the land of the living to set Derek straight and help him stop his brother.
Clive is a copycat killer. In other words, he emulates the works of his “personal heroes”, the famous serial killers of the past. He’s an obsessive who’s memorised the name, deeds, and dates of virtually every serial killer across the globe who ever lived. The sheer amount of work and research Lister has put into Clive’s hobby is quite frightening; as a horror author with an obligatory interest in serial killers I considered myself fairly well read on the subject, but Lister not only displays an encyclopedic knowledge of the most infamous serial killers (through the mouthpiece of Clive) but also of killers so obscure you wonder how deeply and darkly he had to delve to acquire such knowledge.
Needless to say, I was hooked from page one. Lister expertly sketches out the two brothers’ more-than-shady characters but also provides compelling insights into why they are the way they are. Perhaps one of the most innovative strokes of brilliance in this is Clive’s motivation: which is simply that the process of brutally murdering people gives him pleasure. Rather than glamorising Clive by trying to make him seem deep, philosophical, or complex, Lister hits home with the simple and ugly truth: most killers are not particularly interesting people, nor particularly complex. Yet, because Clive’s heinous (and primitive) acts are juxtaposed with Derek’s far more complex moral greyness and the spirit Sam’s running commentary, Lister’s story is anything but simplistic. There are times we feel immensely sorry for Derek. Yes, he’d a fraudster and philanderer of the lowest order. Yes, he’s morally bankrupt. And yes, we suspect there is more he’s not letting on. But, he’s also an intelligent underdog battling his environment, and we can’t help but sympathise with his plight.
Perhaps one of the most interesting threads in the book is Derek’s “coming to terms” with the existence of the supernatural. This is done through his encounter with the ghost / spirit, Sam, who also plagues Derek with dreams in which he descends through the circles of Dante’s hell—a place Sam assures Derek he will end up if he doesn’t change his ways. If you’re getting A Christmas Carol, or perhaps even more accurately Bill Murray's Scrooged, vibes from this, you’re not far off. And as is certainly the case in Charles Dicken’s masterpiece, there is an argument to be made that Sam represents Derek’s conscience, perhaps even his super-ego. There are moments in the book where Sam is actually able to “control” Derek and force him to admit things—and expose truths—that he otherwise would never have done or been able to do. I had to wonder at these times whether Lister were not ever-so-subtly using the supernatural device as a metaphor for the human tendency to externalise and compartmentalise our psyche. In this way, we have the full trifecta. Clive represents Derek’s id, his base urges. Derek even confesses that at times he’s found thoughts of violence vaguely arousing, but it’s a precipice from which he’s never leapt, more for lack of courage than moral compunction. Sam is his super ego, as we’ve already established, trying to morally reform him. And Derek himself is the ego lurking in the middle, a morally grey specimen torn between two polarities of psychic force. I’m not suggesting this is the de facto interpretation of Lister’s work, but great writing stimulates deeper thinking, and Conversations With Dead Serial Killers is undoubtedly great writing: intellectually razor sharp, thought-provoking, and passionate too.
If I have one criticism of Conversations With Dead Serial Killers it’s that it ends quite abruptly (in other words, I wanted more!). A startling revelation comes to light, and the novel then ends before I fully had time to digest its import or meaning. I also think that the big softie in me was looking to see more of a transformation in Derek. This isn’t really a criticism, more a matter of personal taste. I’m a sucker for a big redemption arc, and what we get here is perhaps grittier and some would say more real, which is very fitting given the tone of the book. As a last thought, I honestly would love to read a sequel to Conversations With Dead Serial Killers. I think Derek and Sam in particular have a lot more story in them. That’s how you know a book is not just an intellectual creation, but inspired and inspiring. Lister has created something unique, not a genre-hybrid but a stylistic chimera, and I can’t wait to read more of his work.