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Literary serial killers are a strange conundrum for readers. On the one hand we should be repulsed by their actions. On the other hand they make for excellent character studies. It’s rare to find serial killer characters that capture the public’s attention (Dexter and Hannibal Lecter come to mind). Barbie Wilde’s The Venus Complex delves deeply into the neuroses and mental degradation of a serial killer. It’s a bold but flawed work and I found myself enjoying the novel for the most part.
Mild spoilers ahead.
Recently I reviewed Hellbound Hearts, an anthology series of short stories related to Clive Barker’s Hellraiser setting. Barbie Wilde’s story “Sister Cilice” stood out from the bunch due to its strong connection to the deeply sexual themes explored in Barker’s original tale. My significant other informed me that Wilde had written a full length novel. Wilde’s first novel continues her exploration of the twisted depths of human sexuality and the connection sexual desire has with horror.
For her first novel, Wilde chose to eschew the strict first-person narrative (like American Pyscho or the Dexter novels). Instead she revives an older horror tradition of journal entries as a narrative device. This allows Wilde to write short entries for quips and smaller ideas the character thinks of. The conceit of journal entries is intriguing because it is meant to be a therapeutic tool for the main character to overcome the recent trauma of a car accident. The format also allows Wilde to avoid the often tedious day-to-day interactions first-person stories can generate. The author’s writing style is very detail-oriented, focusing primarily on vivid imagery to convey her ideas. While she is capable of evoking responses with her images, Wilde’s grasp of characterization leaves much to be desired.
Due to the severe nature of the subject material, stories with serial killers as the protagonist must have some means of connecting with the audience. Otherwise, it becomes more difficult for the audience to stomach the gruesome mayhem that such stories engage in. While it’s not always the case (see Patrick Bateman), without that empathetic link to the killer such a character should be relegated to the role of antagonist (look no further than the murder/mystery genre in general for examples). Wilde’s serial killer Michael failed to provide me with a single trait to form an empathetic link to him. Instead I was subjected to a pseudo-intellectual misogynist. Wilde’s writing of the dream sequences and murder scenes are stellar but the character of Michael evoked nothing but contempt. Other literary serial killers like Lecter or Dexter Morgan have some redeemable quality that humanizes them just enough for the audience to accept their actions. Wilde tries to make Michael relatable by having dizzying rants on aspects of popular culture. To me such divergent sections felt less like humanizing moments and more like verbal temper tantrums. Perhaps Wilde wanted to avoid the trap of creating another Hannibal Lecter.
Despite my dislike for the protagonist, Wilde’s detailed dream sequences and murders were well-crafted. The inexorable slide into madness is a natural progression and Wilde milks her killer’s psychosis for every chilling detail she can. While detailing the steps needed to avoid detection, Michael becomes tolerable and Wilde reins in the character long enough to make a compelling narrative and show an almost textbook sociopath. Michael’s increasing nihilism leaks into his sexual fantasies, which are discussed in full detail. Wilde shows a strong stomach here as her protagonist plummets into the misogyny associated with such real-world killers as Bundy. The bridge between disturbing sexual fantasies and acting out such fantasies is not a long walk, according to Wilde’s story.
The Venus Complex is a tremendous first effort by Barbie Wilde that falls short of being a great book. The novel is well-paced, with the short journal entry chapters create a strong forward progression. For those that enjoy serial killer stories, this book is definitely worth a look. However, if you are disturbed by graphic, deviant sexuality, this may not be the book for you. Wilde examines her protagonist’s increasingly twisted sexual desires, showcasing her willingness to explore how dark one of our most primary impulses can be. Barbie Wilde hopefully has a long writing career ahead of her. She has a grasp of sensual horror that begs to be explored further.