5 Stars. Triggers for violent rape on the page, child abuse and neglect, extreme violence, extreme gore. I discuss the rape in this review.
Hunter Shea’s Misfits is a brutal, wild ride about found family and belonging. It’s incredibly entertaining, packed with frenetic energy, and will remind you what it was like to be a teen fighting against the world with just your friends as allies. That said, Misfits is not for everyone. It’s aggressive and will leave you feeling like you’re covered in mud. But it asks the questions, what lengths would you go to, and what would you sacrifice, to protect your own found family when the world seems to be literally ripping each of you apart?
Remember in high school, driving up and down back roads at night in your best friend’s car, music blasting, windows down, maybe passing a joint or splitting a cigarette, swapping stories? Remember how your whole crew would pile in and someone would put on whatever album completely captured your teenage experience, and you would all tool around, killing time? I guess that’s not necessarily universal, but one of the qualities of Misfits is that it brings back that particular memory for me, that specific brand of nostalgia.
Each setting we visited throughout the book felt so reminiscent to those I grew up around. In fact, if it hadn’t been explicitly stated that it takes place in Connecticut, I would have sworn this was the Finger Lakes region of New York. The mental image of driving down dark wooded back roads to someone’s cabin while Chris Cornell’s voice echoes hauntingly out of the car stereo is a personal memory of mine that I was able to inject directly into this book.
Mick, Vent, Chuck, Heidi, and Marnie are best friends, living in a small Connecticut town in the early 1990s. They’re the stoner grunge kids at their high school; more outcast than not. Most of them come from broken, abusive, or (at the very least) challenging homes. Most of them are neglected. But they have each other, and that’s what counts. When one of their own is brutally assaulted, they decide to take justice into their own hands. They take the attacker out to the woods and leave them for the Mellon Heads. The Mellon Heads are an old Connecticut folktale: deformed, violent, feral humans living out in the dark depths of the New England forests. Their plan backfires, however, and they find themselves in more trouble than they could have ever imagined.
This was my first Hunter Shea book, and all I knew about him going in was that he did creatures and monsters well. I can now confirm that is true, and I will add that he is also a master of character, action, and setting. The horror in this book stems from both fantastical folklore and the real world. Misfits deals a lot with the concept of belonging, as the name suggests. Our main characters and heroes feel themselves to be misfits and are certainly viewed that way by others. Their status as such make them easy targets for those looking to cause harm or take advantage. The villains of the story are also all misfits, some in a more conventional sense than others.
It’s not hard to feel sympathy for our main crew. We’ve all known kids like this or were kids like this. Shea builds that attachment between reader and heroes, and then exploits the fuck out of it. It’s made clear from the beginning that this is a group of kids who bad things happen to in life, regardless of whether it’s a monster delivering the blows or society at large. Despite knowing this, or perhaps because of it, you become invested in their journey. Just be prepared.
Shea’s writing had me on the edge of my seat throughout the entire book. Misfits starts with a crushing bang and increases in pace throughout. There are twists, insurmountable odds, extreme acts of love and heroism, and heart-wrenching losses. It was this characteristic of Misfits in particular that really hooked me and left me thirsting for more of Shea’s writing.
While I loved this book and think it will end up being one of my favorites of the year, I feel that I need to address the rape. There is a violent, though quick, rape scene that occurs within the first 10% of the book. It is the inciting incident that sets all the action in motion. The ongoing and important discussion about the use of rape as a plot device in entertainment, especially as a way to grow a female character, should always be considered for narratives like this. In this case, I feel that there could have been a different catalyst to the action that would have worked, but that being said I also feel that Shea handled the rape and subsequent fallout very well.
The character who is assaulted in Misfits does not suddenly become a brave warrior woman who exacts brutal and total revenge. No, she is broken and scared. She leans on her friends, terrified to make her attack public knowledge (an accurate reaction). She mourns the damage her body has gone through and how the assault has forever changed her life. It was believably and honestly written, and the event itself is not lingered on or glorified except to demonstrate the true love and support of her found family.
I think I understand why Shea chose rape as a device here: there needed to be an extraordinary crime committed against them for the misfits to do what they did, risking their own lives and ultimately setting off the extreme and terrifying events of the rest of the book. But I do wonder if the rape was completely necessary. After about halfway through the book you start to forget about it entirely. Could another inciting incident have gotten the job done?
Sexual assault is incredibly serious and needs to be used with extreme caution in all media. Each instance is different, however. Misfits is a brutal book. Much of it sheds light on everyday brutality along with the fantastical brutality of creature features and slashers. The brutality of the crime matches the tone of the book, and ultimately I think Shea navigated it well. That being said, I am not an assault survivor, and I believe that we need to listen to and take seriously the opinions of those who are in instances like this.
I recommend Misfits to people who enjoy The Hills Have Eyes, Mandy, Alice in Chains, and lots of blood and guts. It feels kind of like getting wasted on Smirnoff Ice in your friend of a friend’s cousin’s barn. It leaves you rattled and probably sick as hell, but there is a lot of heart there and a hell of a lot of entertainment.
Published 9/8/20. Thank you to Flame Tree Press and Netgalley for providing the ARC.