Rating: 4.5 stars
Buy Link:
Amazon | iBooks | Amazon UK
Length: Novel

 

“This is what we know, when you tell us of your fondest hopes and dreams for us: that your greatest wish is that one day we will cease to be, and strangers you can love will move in behind our faces.”—James Sinclair

When Felix, Gabriel, Joanna, John, Malcolm, Nadine, and Shelby find themselves in the middle of the desert at Camp Resolution, they expect the usual conversion camp treatments—abuse, sexual assault, and sadism in the guise of help. Nothing they can’t handle; after all, it’s the same in their parents’ homes. However, they soon sense a wrongness beyond the familiar. There’s a sickly sweet quality to the malice, an unearthly gleam behind the eyes, a whispered ripple beneath the skin. There are shared dreams of grinning faces and murmurs of “come to me.” In an explosion of violence, the teens come face to face with the monster underneath the camp and escape with torn out pieces and shattered minds.

Unable to purge the vestigial malevolence, they remain shadows sixteen years later. By turns repelled by and attracted to one another’s orbits, they drift aimlessly—until Felix calls. All these years, he’s been hunting, scouring every isolated conversion camp to find the body-snatching predator. Though still those same traumatized teenagers inside, they must run towards the danger instead of away from it to secure the possibility of a future for themselves and the world.

Cuckoo is a mix of The Body Snatchers, its spiritual sequel The Thing, and It, and is filled with the same dread, horror, and fragile beaten-down hope. The narrative is infused with unsettling tension and simmering emotional and physical aggression that is sometimes more disturbing than the grisly brutality. I think a staple of Felker-Martin’s books is screaming out against society’s cultivated invisibility, dehumanization, and invalidation of the marginalized. Her very strong narrative voice and evocative writing style conveys every drop of emotion, vulnerability, and heartache. To that end, there are many potentially upsetting elements here, such as conversion camps, transphobia, queerphobia, child abuse, allusions to childhood sexual abuse, and gore.

Like the aforementioned stories, the horrifying elements of the creature’s alienness reflect the everyday horrors perpetrated against people who society alienates. For John, Malcolm, Nadine, Shelby, Felix, and Jo, being kidnapped and abandoned to the cruel camp feels inevitable. Already walking bundles of trauma from being emotionally embattled in various ways by their parents, their queerness provided tacit permission to throw them away. As one character says, “. . . it’s like suicide to change who you are,” and that’s what everyone wants—for them to die and emerge as something else. The creature eagerly grants the parents’ wish, and the perfect children it sends back swallows up families one by one.

The teens are volatile fountains of indoctrinated contempt that is weaponized against others, themselves, or both, but it’s also a form of protection. Their different emotional challenges foster responses to imprisonment that run the gamut between Felix’s keep your head down and just survive mentality, to Nadine’s everybody’s gonna have to survive me mindset. Despite their differences, all any of them wants is a home. They crave love, stability, and the seeming impossibility of just being teenagers. They desire to be a part of something greater than themselves, making them more vulnerable and open to the rapacious being in the desert that offers a corrupted and nightmarish version of that. Queer children are its perfect meat source—lambs to the slaughter, pre-tenderized by hopelessness—that no one will miss and gratefully offered up by their parents.

As in It, the survivors club must band together again as adults to slay the beast, not just neutralize it. For sixteen years, they lived as ghosts on the periphery, full of loneliness, restlessness, and festering terror. Though they relied on each other to escape and created a fractured found family, their experience made staying together untenable, despite their desperation to do so. Their youthful camaraderie was tenuous and sharp edged; their fraught survival caused those sharp edges to grow fangs that know where to strike. While they come back together to face the creature, their shared scars don’t bond them into a singular whole. They are a unit of cobbled together amorphous and terrible pieces that may not cohere enough to win.

Like its inspirations, Cuckoo does not shy away from violence and body horror. The same skill that expresses the range of emotions, deaths by a thousand cuts, and losses, creates vivid and stomach-churning images. I will say that the author’s way with words is a double-edge sword; there are emotional landscapes and scenes of heightened awareness that could have been created more economically. At times, her metaphor and adjectival overindulgence drags the pace in Part I, and her inability to kill her darlings in Part II can be tedious and put Stephen King to shame.

Cuckoo is another successful exploration of queer rejection, socially sanctioned violence, resistance, and wounded resiliency by Felker-Martin, and if you’re in the mood for something visceral, this may be just your speed.