A slim horror tale, Tamer Animals has a lot packed into it. The story delves into themes of bullying, homophobia, domestic abuse, racism, and worse—basically all the ways humans are horrible to each other—while following a group of young boys who are just trying to figure out how how to fight these larger violences, or at least how to support each other and get through the days while surrounded by injustice.
Who wouldn't want to get away from all that, if even for a weekend? So get out of town, go camping with your friends. But what happens when the evils you face every day just going to school or even waking up in your own house are not the only evils in the world you have to be afraid of? There might be something worse, something you've never had an inkling of, even in your worst nightmares.
That's what's waiting for the boys in the woods in Tamer Animals, and it's waiting for you too, if you dare to take a look.
The narrative is separated into three distinct sections. The first sets up each of the characters, letting the reader peek into their minds, lives, insecurities, hopes, and failures. The second is the camping trip, which quickly turns bad as one boy, then another, goes missing and strange things happen in the night. The third act is something entirely different, when the boys stumble on something else deep in the woods.
While the mythology of the Goatman is threaded throughout the story, it definitely is not the point of this story, and that is one thing that makes Tamer Animals such an interesting read.
After the initial set-up, the story reads much like a deliciously twisted and action-packed B-horror story. Woodward has a propulsive and gut-wrenching flow; he pours it all on the page, from suspenseful delusion to gooey, chunky gore.
But the story underneath has so many layers—one of the boys has a younger brother who confesses he is unsure about his sexuality. Another boy lives on the wrong side of the tracks, one gets flack about his mixed race. Are these the things that make them who they are? Aren't people all just people? Where does the division, the hatred come from? These are the questions that the book digs into.
One flaw of the storytelling for me was a character who becomes pivotal in the last third of the book who was only in a short scene at the beginning. I had completely forgotten about him by the time he comes up again. Perhaps that was just a failing of my own, but I was so confused by this character and how it reads like we should know who he is, that I had to flip back through the book to see where he was introduced. I thought that more weight should have been given to his first scene, or perhaps something to call back to it later on.
Overall, Tamer Animals is a wonderful horror read, not just for the level of nightmare-inducing viscera, but also for the attention and thought put toward the themes of the book. To me, that is what makes a well-rounded novel, and it shows a lot of promise for what's to come for this writer.
My thanks to the author for providing copies of his book to the Night Worms to read and review.
Associate editor, amateur photdographer, bibliophile, and occasional sleuth.