It occurred to me as I read Ayahuasca, the latest book from Jonathan Huls, that there’s no genre besides horror that can consistently get away with having truly unlikable, despicable characters. Oh, literary fiction may have its flawed antiheroes, but even there, we want our heroes to succeed – at least a little bit. (Even Breaking Bad worked because, no matter how dark Walter White got, we still found ourselves hoping he would come out of it all.) There are undeniably some dark comedies out there (see the works of Jody Hill, for example), and satires full of hilariously distorted figures…but again, we often want these people to succeed in some way or another. But rarely can I come up with another genre where we want our nominal protagonists to fail – indeed, even to die, and sometimes die horribly.
That’s undeniably the case with Ayahuasca, which follows a pair of frat-boy “ugly Americans” making their way through Peru with an apparent plan to get laid, find the drugs in local rituals and do them, and generally party everywhere without concern for anyone else. And that’s more than enough to hate them even before we start to realize exactly how broken and awful these boys really are – and just how dark Huls plans on going. Indeed, even before we realize how far our protagonists really plan to go, Ayahuasca has a whiff of Hostel about it, with a pair of selfish, arrogant Americans traipsing through a foreign country before coming to realize that they’re not as popular as they thought.
But Huls has a darker story in mind, one that pushing Ayahuasca into truly disturbing territory, as the two boys reveal themselves to be not just selfish, but deeply sociopathic, and even deluded about their own nature at times. And it’s to Huls’ credit that this largely works; he never flinches, never backs down from the horror of his character, and leads us step by step through their darkness until there’s no turning back. And even worse, he gives us heroes – and then undercuts them in front of us, in different ways, making them either compromised or helpless in the face of what’s happening.
The result, then, is a pretty pitch-black novel, a brutal and bleak horror/thriller that can be hard to take. It’s easy to feel, for instance, that there’s no hope to be found in this book, and that what little moments of promise we have are dashed or corrupted in front of us. More than that, this is a nasty, pulpy book – there’s little message here, little moral to be found. This is a tale meant to disgust, to horrify, to push you away.
But here’s the thing: it undeniably works on that level. I criticized Huls’ previous book, The nth Day, for not knowing what it wanted to be, and for being all over the map, totally. You can’t make that accusation of Ayahuasca, which is lean, nasty, and tight all the way through. And while its brutality and bleakness can be a bit bracing, it’s a deeply effective use of those attributes, and one that worked for me in its own way. It’s just not exactly a fun time read – but if you like your horror nasty and bleak, you’ll find a lot to like here.