What in the absolute f*** did I just read!
WHAT KIND OF MOTHER by Clay McLeod Chapman is weird, and strange, and bizarre, and surreal, and did I mention weird. Like really weird. Like verging on the edge of almost too weird where it nearly lost me but kept me ensnared with its beautiful poignancy. It felt as if—I the reader—along with the characters were slowly losing our grip on reality to float off beyond into the vast ether only to have the final tether snap taut, reeling us back in toward solid ground. Like a fish hooked on a line, or a crab caught in a trap.
Crack open and peel away that outer shell of weirdness and you will discover that this is a story about the strong and unyielding power of belief, the willpower of the mind and what wonders—and terrors—it can achieve, and the undeniable love and affection a parent has for their children. I believe—see what I did there—that if M.C Esher ever wrote a novel it would have been this one. A surreal twisting narrative that seems to defy what our minds conceive of as being within the realm of possibility. Wandering through a cold dark labyrinth of halls and stairs where what's right is wrong and what's wrong is right until reaching the center, to finally be embraced by a comforting feeling of tenderness, caring, and compassion.
Chapman eases the reader into this one like a frog—or better yet a crab—in a pot of water. We are introduced to Madi—a mother who scrapes by reading palms to put food on the table. When she reconnects with her old high school boyfriend Henry—a local fisherman whose infant son Sklyer went missing years prior—Madi is pulled along on a collision course with the possible terrifying truth of what really happened to Skyler. At first appearance this seems like a typical whodunit surrounding the mysterious disappearance of a child, but Chapman has other more nefarious intentions. Gradually turning up the heat—the weird factor—and before we know it any sense of normalcy has been boiled away. Oh, and did I mention crabs? Yea, those clickity clackity crustaceans steal the show at times with some deviously delicious scenes of body horror. I don’t think I will ever view a crab the same way again. Shudders.
Setting and location are probably something that I place more value in than I should when it comes to books. There is just this feeling of belonging—maybe, I’m not sure how to describe it—of connecting to a place that I’ve never visited before through the magical process of reading the written word. When an author is able to really capture that sense of place, to transport the reader beyond the page and into a tangible authentic environment. What Andy Davidson did for me with the backwoods and rivers of Arkansas in THE BOATMAN’S DAUGHTER Chapman pulls off the same here, bringing the Chesapeake Bay area of Virginia to life in rich detail.
And the duck blind. I must talk about the duck blind. I don’t know why but those two simple words upon the page conjured forth such a vivid mental picture in my mind. If you will allow me a moment to indulge and describe how I imagined it. A weathered wooden structure rising up out of the brackish waters, draped in a cloak of white mist that will burn off with the morning sun. Standing upon stilt legs to tower over the wetlands like an ancient monolith—the camera slowly pans in like a scene from True Detective.
Salt and brine, bones and belief. WHAT KIND OF MOTHER by Clay McLeod Chapman is a skewed and unhinged Southern gothic variant of a parent’s worst nightmare. An emotionally charged and raw human drama doused in extraordinary circumstances. Though maybe misguided at times—overcome by grief and longing and love—there is a palpable sense of genuine heart beating just beneath the surface of these murky crab infested waters. For me, this is weird horror fiction at its best.
Farmer’s Market Mafia 4 life. If you know you know.
I received an eARC of this book from the publisher through Edelweiss for review consideration.
Title: What Kind of Mother
Author: Clay McLeod Chapman
Publisher: Quirk Books
Publication Date: September 12, 2023
Format Reviewed: eBook