Necessary Monsters

Author: Richard A. Kirk

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 2017

I read it: January 2018

necessary monsters

You know what’s awesome? Libraries. You know what library system in particular is extra awesome? The Des Moines Public Library. Sure, at our local branch they provide Legos on Fridays so I can take my son there every week after picking him up from preschool. But what’s impressive is how many items they have purchased at my request, including this rather obscure book. I saw the request pending for over a year, and then one day it was available and waiting for me. Thank you.

Even though it was through a DIY press, Richard A. Kirk was able to fulfill his goal of putting out a full-length novel based on the characters from his short work The Lost Machine. Here we have the return of Lumsden Moss, former prisoner and nearly friendless human being. The book starts out intriguingly enough, with many peculiar angles that include a glimpse into Moss’ boyhood and a chapter from the perspective of a crow. The main narrative concerns Moss’ present day after the events of The Lost Machine, and he has a job as a caretaker for a powerful man who wronged him, so Moss is enacting a slow revenge that involves stealing a book.

Kirk loves his books and museums as much as his back alleyways and dangerous assassins. Everything feels covered with a thin layer of grime and Moss’ world seems to be one in which no one is happy and everyone goes out of their way to make new enemies. The chapters are nicely episodic, several of which could act as their own mini-stories, rich in imagery and confidently paced.

But there’s something about the whole that feels stilted. Moss gains a larger goal to find a childhood friend he thought was dead, but getting there turns into a task for the reader.

The red herrings and duplicitous loyalties seem to work better in theory than in practice. At one point a colorful villain is introduced and holds an air of mysterious competence and cruelty. I thought it would take Moss an entire book to reckon with this boss, but Moss ends up dispatching him and is then pursued by an even more powerful antagonist who toys with him but doesn’t outright kill him when she should. Irridis hangs around but ends up feeling underused, also brought down too easily without ever using the powers of his ocelli, the floating tokens above his head.

Then there’s Imogene, a capable criminal with a troubled past connected to Moss’ own. She’s a good partner when Moss isn’t leaving her alone unnecessarily to get maimed. Words like “fiery,” “unpredictable,” “strong-willed,” and “unstable” all come to mind—but not in a complimentary way. The character, beautiful and tattooed, slips into unhinged female sidekick more than once. The worst part is that her death is suggested not once, but twice, a tired device in any context but one that seems especially grating here.

I don’t mean to illustrate only the sore spots. Kirk is an able writer with a real drive to explore human connection. He seeks to ask, “What do we owe the people we once loved if they’re revealed to be something else?” Every character in his book is a monster of some sort, but Moss strives for a hazy redemption. I just had trouble keeping track of the murky motivations and overly twisted plot points enough to stay connected to the main thread. The book is functional but needs focus. The gloominess is tangible, and I do like this little hypothesis:

Life is a string of dark beads. We spend our lives adding to them, one by one, stringing them together, our little beads of torment. Then one day the string dissolves and they all roll back to the shadows. That’s when you realize how futile it all was.

It may be that Kirk has a few too many dark beads and needs to unstring a few. Maybe the problem is all Moss; after all, it’s never good when every other character is more interesting than your main one. I’d rather have another short story about Irridis. I suppose it’s always possible, given how people can be resurrected in this imagined world.

But the most egregious part of the book is the lack of illustrations. I had expected the author to go deep into illustrator mode with this title, and create a story that relies on his own unique visuals. Aside from the cover, there’s not a single sketch in the 283 pages. I cannot for a single reason fathom why. I’d gladly trade out a few subcharacters and betrayal plotlines for visions of the crowded city, a forbidden island, tattered books that hold secrets, or the witch’s demonic beast of burden.

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