Author: Tom Piccirilli
Publisher: Apex Book Company
Format: Electronic ARC (provided by publisher)
Look at the coffee-stained book cover. Tommy Pic, the novella’s protagonist, is scratched in red. He’s a thirty-something B-Movie screenwriter, recently released from the mental facility. His latest script, What Makes You Die, is a horror movie that he hopes his crummy agent can sell.
At the bottom of the manuscript/book cover is a komodo dragon. He has no name, so perhaps his image is there bearing co-authorship. Or perhaps not — Tommy Pic once tried to cut the dragon out of his intestines with a steak knife. Tommy’s mental issues are such that he can never really trust reality. He suffers from bi-polar disorder, manic depression, and possibly PTSD. Despite his mental instability, Pic has managed to eek out a living and has sold a few manuscripts that have become movies.
In the process of trying to put the pieces of his life together, Tommy Pic meets a woman named Eva in the nearby occult bookstore. A relationship develops between the two and at one point he wonders if she is even real. During an overnight rendezvous, Pic finds a large portion of his manuscript completed, yet he has no memory of writing it. Even if he did, there wasn’t enough time to write it.
The plot of What Makes You Die continues with a series of uncertain realities and numerous flashbacks with one goal in mind. Can Tommy Pic finish his manuscript and get back on his feet? Or more importantly, can he remember what he wrote?
Tom Piccirilli’s writing is short and punchy, reminiscent of the biting prose of Chuck Palahniuk. Told in a first person narrative, we are brought into the depths of a foggy, but seemingly truthful narrator, who despite his lack of education is well acquainted with Shakespeare. The subject matter of the novel is often dark, but fortunately doesn’t tread too far into the gory details of the tragedies in Pic’s life.
Part of what makes the novella particularly poignant is the fact that Piccirilli is in the process of fighting (hopefully recovering from?) brain cancer. Tommy Pic, who has the author’s namesake, suffers from a mental disorder that is in no way mocked or trivialized. Pic writes and writes, battling his illness at every turn. I don’t know to what extent some of the emotions and realizations about his writing career are autobiographical, but as a reader, I couldn’t help but project these struggles onto the author. This is only conjecture — Tom Piccirilli has authored more than twenty novels in a few different genres and has become a success and well-recognized name in the field (primarily in horror).
What Makes You Die is witty and ominous, filling the reader with a mix of hope and dread as Tommy Pic reveals his past and present struggles. As a novella, the story reaches its proper length, long enough to unveil Pic’s character, but not too long as to require several subplots. While I longed for a few loose ends to be tied up a little better (better understanding the events with his childhood friend, his father, and a stronger conflict/resolution with Eva), the story was compelling to read. For those looking for a a shorter-length character study with dark horror-esque themes, dare yourself to venture with What Makes You Die.