There’s nothing quite like a winter sea, the slate gray sky hung luminous above beautiful and bitterly cold waves. It’s a desolate and vicious environment, a fact that makes a city on such shores the perfect setting for Jennifer Giesbrecht’s inky black debut novella The Monster of Elendhaven. It is an unhinged and feral tale, sharp as a knife slipped between your ribs in a dark alley, and just as surprising. It grabs you by the throat and refuses to let go, gripping with intent both murderous and seductive.
This is the story of a named but nameless creature—a vicious killer only vaguely human—and his equally cruel master. The creature awakens to itself on a beach, staring at a rotting corpse. It stumbles upon a moniker, Johann, and begins to find in it a purpose for its (his) strange, inhuman life. Johann is oddly but significantly drawn to a priggish aristocrat named Florian Leickenbloom, a fop who is the last surviving member of a dying family, physically frail but possessed of dark secrets and a terrible hunger for vengeance.
Together, these two black souls begin to work their dark mechanisms on the dying, backwater misery of the town they call home: Elendhaven, a city encrusted with the salt of a black and sickened sea, and rancid with plague and death. It becomes the fetid, fertile ground in which they plant their bitter seeds and call forth the fruits of revenge. Nothing but their own depravity stands in their way, until an unlikely woman arrives in town, with the will and the means to stop them.
The novella moves with the pace of a thriller, but revels in the alluring, lurid bond between Johann and Florian; ostensibly tool and master, respectively they instead slither around one another like venomous snakes, entwining their dark desires into one unholy purpose. Johann is obsessed with Florian, and baits him into getting close, even as he is eager to carry out all of his master’s most violent and wretched commands. Johann tries to keep himself at a remove, but makes only cursory protests when his minion pulls him close. Elendhaven is both their playground and their prison, its assorted peasants and businessmen their jailers, victims, and tormenters. Florian makes his disgust for humanity known with a curl of his lip; Johann is happy to tear them apart with a knife.
Their story is gothic perfection, a moldy and moth-eaten love letter to all those who favors tales as dangerous as they are dark. I devoured it all too quickly, grown heady with its lusciousness and perversion, with the odd love story that blooms within it. Elendhaven is an evocative and horrible place, a port town with a touch of Innsmouth. The characters that live there are awful, beguiling creatures with razorblade smiles and terrible hungers (and I’m only talking about the humans). The dark fantasy elements are subtly deployed—shocking and Victorian and almost theatrical, like something out of Jim Henson’s nightmares. The prose drips with ichor and venom; there is poison delicately laced through every sentence.
This is a book that knows just how nasty and mean its characters are, and luxuriates in their vile natures, but reading it is a discordantly enjoyable affair. If anything, it displays an almost blissfully cheerful way of appreciating its own unsettling violence. Like the awful creature at its center, The Monster of Elendhaven knows just how temptingly twisted it is, and refuses to apologize for tempting and titillating you as you submerge yourself in its pages. It will tear your heart out and eat it for lunch, humming a jaunty tune all the while. And you’ll thank it for the pleasure.