Book Review: The Killing Gift by Bari Wood

3 Stars. Published 1975. Trigger warnings for extreme bullying, child abuse, child death, suicide, murder, racism, sexism, addiction, animal cruelty.

Bari Wood has found a home in the Paperbacks from Hell contingent. In fact, her book The Tribe is part of Valancourt’s Paperbacks From Hell series of select ’70s and ’80s classic paperbacks, curated by our favorite Grady Hendrix and inspired by his own Paperbacks from Hell nonfiction exploration of the pulp horror fiction paperbacks published in these decades. This has really spoken to collectors and inspired a lot of bargain bin diving and Ebay hunting. The Paperbacks from Hell community could be considered the horror book community’s equivalent of tape collecting. These are classics, once considered pulp, now highly sought after books. Some are rare, some are trash. Some are actually amazing stories, and some are, again, trash. The Putnam Prize-winning The Killing Gift is definitely not trash. It’s actually highly enjoyable and features fantastic writing, and I recommend it to anyone interested. I’m giving it a mediocre rating because I feel like some serious opportunities were missed, and I can’t get past the outdated ideas about women and casual racism typical of the late ’70s.

I picked this book up several years ago in this cool shop in Vestal, NY called Sound Go Round that sells used books, DVDs/Blurays, vinyl, tapes, CDs, video games, tabletop games, clothing, and more. It was one of the few places my husband and I enjoyed spending time in when we lived in the Binghamton area. I saw The Killing Gift in a bin of cheap old paperbacks and was immediately sucked in by the cover. The description made it sound a bit like Jennifer’s Body, which is one of my favorite films. I had to have it and happily slapped down the $1.00! It’s nothing like Jennifer’s Body, but it’s still quite a bit of fun.

My below discussion of the book has hella spoilers. You’ve been warned.

Dr. Jennifer Gilbert is from a wealthy privileged family, but despite her pleasing appearance and familial connections, she can’t seem to make friends. Her whole life people have distanced themselves from her, but she never quite understood why. And then there are the deaths. More than one boy or man connected to Jennifer has died in her presence. And the autopsies reveal impossibilities. How does a boy who was simply pushed appear to have been mangled by a train? Or a man who just collapsed onto the floor have injuries consistent with falling 20 stories and landing on his head and neck? Jennifer has a curse: she’s telekinetic. When she gets angry or feels threatened, it lashes out. When one of these mysterious deaths catches the eye of Captain David Stavitsky (chief of homicide), it becomes clear that Jennifer is living on borrowed time.

The narrative switches between character and year, focusing on the ‘present’ from the perspectives of both Jennifer and Stavitsky, as well as flashbacks to Jennifer’s past as a child and young woman. We learn about Jennifer’s history with her gift (curse), and about Stavitsky’s growing obsession with her involvement in the mysterious death of a man breaking into her apartment. That obsession becomes confusing, however, as his feelings start to be sexual despite being terrified and repulsed by Jennifer.

My personal contribution to the Mass Market Paperbacks and Butts tag this year. A tag a never miss.

This is an odd and interesting trend in The Killing Gift. Jennifer is frequently described as being both ugly and beautiful. Her physical features are inconsistent, as are the ways men feel about her. This actually seemed like a good example of how many men feel about women who are more powerful than them. Jennifer is a member of the 1%. She has extreme generational wealth. She is a medical doctor doing critical research at a well respected institution. And, she has this incredible power that makes her physically more powerful and in control…something men are used to being. She is superior to the men in her life in all ways, and as a reaction to this men get physically ill in her presence. They become enraged for no reason. This is blamed on her powers, of course, the aura of energy pulsating around her. And yet, these men also covet her. Sounds like pretty standard misogyny to me. I found this pretty interesting, but Wood does not explore this idea on a deeper level in the book (at least not in my opinion), and I consider that a huge missed opportunity.

The ending of The Killing Gift might be the most interesting part and seems to set it up for a fun series concept that I would have loved to experience. Stavitsky offers her a deal…she can use her telekinesis to murder the criminals on his ‘list’ and he won’t expose her. He decides to offer her this deal instead of actually killing her, which is what the male doctors he consults with want him to do. He does this because he desperately wants to fuck her. I find it laughable that a) Stavitsky thinks he could actually kill Jennifer and b) that he thinks he has a shot with her, but this book is nearly 50 years old. Jennifer decides to take the deal, and that’s how it ends. I want to see them team up to take down disgusting criminals! But alas. It doesn’t appear that we were ever treated to those stories, however, and because of that the ending leaves Jennifer in a spot all women who hold power and value independence dread. She is left to the whims of an inferior man.

Despite all this, I generally enjoyed The Killing Gift and Wood’s writing! The concepts and characters were excellent, and her sense of place and setting are amazing. The Killing Gift is great for fans of The X-Files and quiet crime films like Zodiac. While a bit of a slow burn, it offers many intense moments and vivid descriptions that kept me on the edge of my seat throughout. I have more of Wood’s work and will definitely be reading it.

This book fulfills a few reading prompts from the many reading challenges I’m tackling this year. It fulfills the “book with less than 200 Goodreads reviews” prompt for the Books in the Freezer challenge, hosted by the Books in the Freezer podcast, and the “book you’ve had on a TBR in the past” prompt for the If You Got It Read It challenge, hosted by the Spine Breakers on YouTube.