Tome by Ross Jeffery (2021 Splatterpunk Awards)

Juniper2TomeTome begins with Jasper, an incarcerated serial killer, hearing a voice that compels him to bash his brains out on the wall of his cell. When prison guard Frank Whitten sees the gruesome result of this act, his immediate response is to call out “We’ve got another one!”

Clearly, something sinister is afoot.

This is the sequel to Ross Jeffery’s novella Juniper (also on the Splatterpunk Award ballot) and takes place in the fictional town of that book’s title. This time, however, we see a different area of Juniper. While the original novella treated us to the (already harrowing) sight sight of what went on in the burning sun of boa daylight, Tome takes us to the darker corners, introducing us to the people so bad that even Juniper places them behind bars.

Readers will be introduced to Antonio, a gargantuan child-molester; Henry Crumb, leader of a Neo-Nazi group called the Sisters whose situation has driven them to homosexuality; and Klein, a wife-beater who “hadn’t been aiming to leave a bloody mess of a woman, he’d been planning to leave a bloody corpse of a woman” (Klein’s wife Janet is a central character in Juniper, making him one of the few direct connections between the two books).

The authorities are scarcely better than the criminal underworld. Tome emphasises racism as a particularly grave evil, one embodied by the character of Hezekiah Fleming. A warden at the prison, Fleming is an avowed racist; his office has a taxidermied woodchuck holding a Confederate flag, and he fits right into a prison where a pulley arm once used for hanging slaves is still on display. He receives the opponent of his nightmares in the form of Dolores Fink, sent by the Correctional Investigation team of the US Marshal Office to investigate the suspicious deaths. Being black, she is an immediate object of Fleming’s hostility; but despite all of his efforts, she appears impossible to intimidate. Desperate to do away with her, Fleming makes a deal with the convicts he is supposedly trying to keep in line.

As hellish as Juniper Correctional may be, it does have its spots of light; these are represented by protagonist Frank Whitten. In contrast to Fleming, Frank is an avowed anti-racist:

The town had its fair share of secrets, many stored on the shelves of the prison library – although racism and slavery weren’t one of them. They were worn as badges of honour by many of the townsfolk and even the inhabitants of Juniper Correctional. Frank found it abhorrent, and for that he was labelled by many as a “sympathiser.” To him it wasn’t sympathy, it was marriage.

Juniper’s racism has impacted Fran’s family, as his wife Cynthia is black: “Being a black woman in Juniper was like living with the bubonic plague. A body was automatically shunned, dismissed, and insulted.” Frank is a religious man, as the antagonistic Fleming acknowledges: “you even found God, not at the end of a bottle as you had hoped, but within these groups you’ve been going to, through the pain you’ve been working through.” While not a perfect saint – he feels a physical attraction to Dolores, and has to forcibly remind himself that he is married – Frank is nonetheless the community’s best hope for redemption. He also acts as something of a reader surrogate as he is confronted with the macabre goings-on around the prison:

To the left of the cell door was a canvas of ghastly brown smears, handprints long since dried, and several indentations in the crumbling brickwork. The wall was flecked with small shards of white that glinted in the light. It was easy to enough to decipher what they were when Frank’s gaze travelled down the wall to the beginning of Jasper’s body on the floor. The face was crumpled in on itself like a spoilt pumpkin. His eyes were poached blue eggs in gory holes. What was left of the rest of Legg’s body lay in a brown puddle of solidifying fluids, his limbs splayed around him like a parody of a crime scene chalk line. What puzzled Frank the most was how Jasper had managed to shred his skin so completely before he’d smashed his head in.

Unlike Juniper, Tome has a supernatural element, with the apparent suicides being caused by a demonic force. This manifests early on as a disembodied voice or a briefly-glimpsed apparition. Later, the entity haunting Juniper Correctional reaches out to Fleming; its main focus, however, is on picking off the inmates, manifesting in a different way to each victim.

One of the most memorable sequences comes when the paedophile falls prey to the demon: while in his cell, he hears childish giggles and taunts, recognising the voices as those of past victims; he then feels the slaps and punches of tiny hands. So many tiny hands, in fact, that he is overpowered: “Icy hands descended into his body as others reached for his mouth and smothered his cries. Feet slapped. Voices giggled. Skin ripped. Then nothing.” The staff later finds his body left “in such a way that each limb was spread to every corner of his cell, like some ghastly reimagining of the Vitruvian Man.”

Naturally, it falls upon Frank – the good man – to confront the demon. As the entity taunts him with cruelly distorted visions of his wife Cynthia, he takes up the role of saviour no matter how great the personal cost.

In the book’s afterword, author Ross Jeffery discusses his personal religious leanings. He expresses his belief in the reality of the demonic and the forces of evil, which he explicitly associates with racism: “We only have to look at George Floyd to see that although Tome is a work of fiction – we are quite possibly living in this fictional racially divided town of Juniper already”.

This spiritual dimension adds much to Tome. What begins as a splatter-filled romp through a prison of lurid grotesques becomes a meditation on the forces of hatred and love, predation and self-sacrifice. Yet throughout all of this it never loses its forward momentum, instead knowing exactly where to position a shocking character death or a nightmarish demon encounter for best effect. With this novel, the relatively confined world of Juniper is blown wide open; we can only imagine where the upcoming third volume in the series shall take us.

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