Daryl Gregory’s novella is only 192 pages long, and I finished it all in a rather enjoyable rainy Sunday morning. It’s horror, but it’s fairly light horror. It’s got monsters and suffering and appalling torture, but it’s also got lots of humour and hope.
It begins with six unusual people coming together for group therapy. Harrison became famous as ‘The Monster Detective’, a hero who inspired a series of novels. Stan became equally famous after being imprisoned by a family of cannibals who ate his limbs (and his friends). Barbara claims that someone known as the Scrimshander cut her open and peeled back her flesh to carve messages on her bones. Greta’s body is covered in dense, intricately carved scars. Martin refuses to ever take off his sunglasses, but sees things others don’t.
Each of these patients are sole survivors, marked by scars inside and out. They’ve all faced monsters, but Dr. Jan Sayer is the only therapist who has not dismissed their experiences as delusion. She’s brought them together, hoping that their knowledge of a monstrous other world will enable them to help each other live in the normal one.
I requested this book because the blurb suggested that it could be a fantastic character study, and the novella certainly delivers on that point. For the first half or so, there isn’t much of a plot. The characters just tell their stories and we get brief glances into their current lives. And it works very, very well.
Gregory’s writing is excellent, masterfully detailing the characters – Harrison’s awkward tendency to overthink everything; the polite, well-groomed appearance that covers Barbara’s tortured past; the way Martin immediately develops an antagonistic relationship with the rest of the group. For a while Greta is noticeable only because of her persistent silence, while Stan, on the other hand, dominates every session with indulgent monologues about his suffering.
Whether I liked these characters I can’t quite say, but I was instantly invested in hearing their stories, understanding who they were, and how the hidden world of demons and monsters had shaped them. We Are All Completely Fine is, first and foremost, a character-driven story and it works brilliantly as such.
But there is a plot and, unfortunately, when this starts to develop about halfway through, the novella begins to falter. This is partly because it’s not a great plot. Although it ties the characters individual stories together quite neatly and gives us a bit of action, it’s just so… dull. Like something from a B-grade horror movie.
A second problem is that the plot comes to dominate the story when it’s actually the weakest element. The characters, who were strong enough to drive a narrative on their own, fade into the background of a plot that’s not nearly as interesting as they were. I still enjoyed reading about them, especially as Martin comes out of his shell and Stan’s old-man grumpiness lends a wonderful dose of humour, but it just wasn’t the same.
The novel starts out feeling fresh and well-crafted, and then degenerates into something totally forgettable. I was left with the odd feeling of being very pleased and terribly disappointed at the same time. Since it’s so short though, I’d say it’s worth giving it a shot.