Newlyweds Grant and Lindsey celebrate their marriage with a trip to a mountainside cabin owned by Grant’s family. During their journey, Lindsey’s libido begins running out of control: she suggests such erotic adventures as having sex beside a country road, or getting jiggy in every state of the country. But their most extreme exploit begins when they meet a man named Jorge – and Lindsey shoots him with a tranquiliser so he can be abducted and taken back to the cabin for a round of torture.
Grant is initially surprised by this development. Not because his new wife is kidnapping someone, but because she has decided to do it so soon: they had previously agreed to abduct and murder someone at the end of their trip, not the beginning. Grant and Lindsey, as it happens, are a pair of sadists who bonded over their shared obsession with serial killers, and when bedroom roleplay failed to satisfy, Lindsey agreed to marry Grant on the sole grounds that he helped her to carry out a murder for real. “There’s literally no reason we had to wait until the end of the trip”, she argues. “And the sooner we go ahead and do it, the freer we’ll be. I’m talking about real freedom, Grant, freedom in its purest fucking form.”
And so Grant goes along with it. At first it is just the three of them in the cabin: two would-be murderers and their victim. But they receive unexpected visitors when members of Grant’s extended family – a couple and three children ranging from infant to eye-rolling teenager – drop by at this most inconvenient of moments. Furthermore, the cabin is not quite so isolated a retreat as the two kidnappers hoped: a mysterious man, who lives as a recluse in the mountains, is keeping an eye on things…
Merciless is structured as a macabre farce, one where convincing motivations are less important than how many characters can be squeezed into the mountain-cabin bloodbath. Each new victim (or perpetrator) brings with them a new set of revelations, which range from a drug problem to a secret pregnancy. Before long, a whole family saga has unfolded – multiple family sagas, in fact, with four distinct clans represented in the ordeal.
Even as Grant and Lindsey get stuck into their torture session, they find their relationship rocked by revelations of adultery. As well as the standard sexual infidelity, however, the novel plays with a sort of murder-adultery. Lindsey, it transpires, has already killed someone – she pushed a girl off a nightclub roof during her collage days – but kept this a secret from Grant, feeling that this impulsive homicide did not count as a proper murder. Meanwhile, despite helping Lindsey to plan the atrocity, Grant finds himself reluctant to actually go through with it – which in the context of the story is roughly akin to finding out that he is impotent.
But despite the story’s farcical framework and the dialogue’s tendency towards sick-joke flippancy (“I’ve got no interest in murdering an infant”, says Lindsey. “What’s the point? It’s not like it’d be able to testify against me in court”) Merciless should not be mistaken for a tale of cartoon violence. The novel depicts its increasingly elaborate sessions of torture and degradation with genuine brutality, the scene in which teenage Kelsey is forced to scalp her own mother being typical:
Vomit exploded from her mouth and struck her mother in the face, hitting her like a stream of water from a firehose. Another powerful wave of nausea came over Kelsey almost immediately. She let go of the scalp and leaned backward slightly, but the second explosive blast of vomit again hit her mother dead-center in the face. If not for the duct tape covering her mouth, a lot of it would’ve gone straight down her throat.
Her captors made several sounds of disgust as this happened, but they were laughing, too. Both of them. She got a glimpse of the man’s face between the eruptions of puke and felt further sickened by his expression of leering amusement.
There is a meaning behind the mayhem, as the novel has a satirical streak. In one scene Grant is surprised to hear Lindsey make insensitive comments about gay people because, as he says to her, “You’re always so into how woke you are on social media.” She responds by calling this “a mask, a way to make people think I’m normal and caring. The truth is, I don’t give a shit about anybody in the world other than you and me. I hate all people of all races, genders and sexual orientations.”
Grant himself begins indulging in prejudice when he has the opportunity to torture Jorge: “you’re not even a real person to me. Poor. Non-white. That makes all this a little easier, if I’m being honest.” He surprises himself by voicing such bigoted thoughts: “the sentiments expressed didn’t reflect any long-withheld private feelings, at least not any he’d been aware of on a conscious level. They almost seemed to come from nowhere, though he realized that couldn’t be the case. Perhaps they’d always lurked inside him, these feelings of inherent superiority, hidden away inside one of the nastier dark corners of his psyche.”
The politics of privilege and prejudice are taken to a new level when Grant’s wealthy relatives arrive on the scene. “There’s all sorts of ways of getting things”, says the outwardly wholesome teenager Kelsey after demonstrating her fondness for cocaine. “People give me stuff because I’m rich and pretty, especially if they think I’ll fuck them.” The fact that she has been disfigured by a nail through the face does not dampen her confidence: “With all the money I’ll be inheriting, I’ll be able to afford high-end plastic surgery.”
All of this helps to add texture and nuance to the novel – rather more, in fact, than would typically be expected from a book with the essential premise of “some people get stuck in a cabin and try to kill each other”. The rabid shaggy-dog story ends with a punchline that owes a considerable debt to a very famous horror film, but still works nonetheless.