I love books that make me feel uncomfortable. I love books that crawl into an invisible space under my ribs and stay there like a twitching parasite. Rachel Eve Moulton's Tinfoil Butterfly did both. I don't know what her writing process was like, but if it resembled the way I read it, I can picture her bent over a desk in a dimly-lit room, typing away furiously while breathing the short, violent breaths of a scared animal.
Emma is hitchhiking her way to the Badlands. She has a fresh scar on her belly and her system is full of pain medication. She's in a van with a man named Lowell and things appear to be going well, but then she wakes up to a different reality. Lowell isn't the nice man he seemed to be, and soon Emma is running away after stealing a gun and the van and leaving Lowell on the pavement, bleeding from a bullet wound.
The van runs out of gas in an abandoned town somewhere in the Black Hills of South Dakota. It's cold outside, and Emma seeks shelter in a dilapidated diner before passing out. When she wakes up she meets Earl, a young boy wearing a tinfoil mask who's stolen her gun and her pills — and who knows her name. Before Emma can process the wild stories Earl tells her, she follows him to a house where he asks her for help burying the body of his father, whom he killed using her pills. But the man isn't dead. This fact is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg. What follows is a brutal, incredibly bizarre exploration of insanity, guilt, love, and the darkness inside all of us.
Do you want a perfect recipe for creeping yourself out? Read Tinfoil Butterfly alone while listening to William Basinski. Seriously. This novel is a hybrid monster that's part Lovecraftian nightmare and part literary exploration of evil, all set in a town reminiscent of the Silent Hill video games. Its atmosphere is as dark as fresh asphalt and the conversations between Emma and Earl are as weird as anything Joe Lansdale ever wrote. So are Emma's memories:
My dad's point, I think, was that evil doesn't take people by surprise. In order for it to really get you, a tiny piece of you has to want it. He sure wanted it, my father. He drank it up until he lay down on the train tracks where he let it kill him. Literally let it split him in half. And that's what I tried to do too, right? It's what I'm still trying to do. Split myself in half.
At 18, Emma found out she had cancer; she had thought the tautness in her abdomen was a baby. After the diagnosis, she tried to overdose and then to cut the tumor out by herself with an X-Acto knife, but she survived. Earl's story is no happier. Neither is his discourse:
"I'm very scientific," he says. "I like experiments. Every time I meet a new person, I try to decide how long they'll live if I pick them apart." Earl stops on the hill and turns to face me. His voice is low and serious. If he weren't so slight, barely reaching my chest and far too skinny, I would be scared. "It's fun to figure out which parts to take off first," Earl continues. "A leg. An arm. With some people, I make sure to take their head off right away so they won't scream. I'd take your head off last."
The blood and violence are strong here, but the poetry is just as powerful. This is a debut novel, but Moulton writes with the strength and confidence of a seasoned writer:
The permanence of the fact that my body has been emptied out, however, never fails to make me feel like there is a dark, empty spot in me. A hollow place. All my remaining organs shrinking back from that dark, empty spot, nothing moving in to warm or replace what was or might have been.
Tinfoil Butterfly is eerie, atmospheric, and almost unbearably dreary. Every time you think it can't get worse, Moulton delivers another hit, another bleak revelation, another unnerving vision. She fully engages with the weirdness of the place and never shies away from gore. However, the most important thing about this horrific read is that it doesn't need monsters to scare you — just cancer, heartbreak, abuse, and cocaine, all of which are normal things in our world. Now do yourself a favor and let Moulton's darkness invade your blood.
Gabino Iglesias is an author, book reviewer and professor living in Austin, Texas. Find him on Twitter at @Gabino_Iglesias.