"Clown in a Cornfield" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by HarperTeen
Written by Adam Cesare
2020, 352 pages, Fiction
Released on August 25th, 2020
You know how sports fans memorize stats and talk about following their favorite athletes from their rookie year onward? Well, book nerds do the same thing with authors. In my case, Adam Cesare is one of those writers I’ve followed from his first release and have read everything they have ever published. From indie press up-and-comer to Big Five success, watching him shift and redefine himself while never changing his punchy style and always staying loyal to his unique brand of slasher/nostalgia/chaotic/fun horror has been a pleasure. When I heard he had a YA novel coming, I knew I’d be the first in line to read it. After reading every other book by him, I went in with certain expectations and worried about how the limitations YA imposes on gore and violence were going to affect his work. I’m happy to report that Clown in a Cornfield is not only classic Cesare, but it may also be his best book yet.
Quinn Maybrook moved to the tiny town of Kettle Springs with her father to find start a new life after the loss of her mother. Kettle Springs is a slice of old Americana with its Main Street and cheap diner, but there’s plenty of darkness under that simple façade. The Baypen Corn Syrup Factory, which was a huge player in the local economy, shut down, and that devastated the town in many ways. The adults in town miss the good old days and want to return to them; they want to go back to a time before technology and so-called progress altered their way of life. Meanwhile, the young residents of Kettle Springs want to fully enjoy the benefits of being on the lucky side of the digital divide and they spend their time partying and making prank videos they regularly upload to the web. Unfortunately, these differences are just the tip the of the proverbial iceberg and a deeper rift threatens to put a few kids under the ground. When Frendo, a creepy clown that used to be Baypen’s mascot, starts killing youngsters because they are bad, Quinn and her father will find themselves thrust into the epicenter of a battle that was brewing before they arrived, and it’s a battle that could change Kettle Springs forever.
The first thing fans of Cesare’s previous books should know is that this being a YA book has no impact on the author’s particular brand of mayhem. Sure, it’s not as gruesome as his cannibalistic Tribesmen, but it doesn’t have to be because the plot doesn’t ask for it and the narrative is much deeper and nuanced. In fact, in terms of placing characters at the forefront of the story and saying things about how we treat each other, not to mention exploring generational differences and throwing in a bit of commentary of contemporary America, Clown in a Cornfield is Cesare’s smartest book. Also, don’t worry: there’s plenty of gore, murder, blood, clown creepiness, and bedlam here:
Coming back around in a second swing, the circular saw cut Janet’s head from her body. She fell backward in a halting, dislocated heap, the pop of the handgun sounding only once, as Janet’s head hit the dirt.
Cesare gets many things right in Clown in a Cornfield. The first one that merits attention is his character development and the way he uses his characters as vehicles to discuss larger issues using a small town as the frame for his critiques. The adults want to make Kettle Springs “great again” after an accident at a party leads to the death of one of the town’s young women. I won’t give too much away, but the adults have a plan to get things back to what they consider normal, and the real action begins once they put it into motion. In the middle of that action, Cesare finds the perfect space to have his characters tackle some generational issues. The adults take the first turn at bat:
What I realized was that you and all your little friends who’d been there that night, even the ones not directly responsible, are bad. Whether you was born bad, or made bad by your phones, by the internet, by the music, by social media, I dunno.
A young man replies a few pages later:
You’re all so worried about what’s wrong with the kids, when you’re the ones selling us guns, telling us times were better when men were men, pretending that global warming is a hoax, and turning hate into a team sport. I mean, yeah, you have taken it all a step further, sure, but it’s not like anyone over the age of fifty has ever really given a shit about us.
Besides discussions that push contemporary concerns and topics known for the generational divisiveness they cause, Cesare also nails small town Americana and explores the aftermath of trauma. While these things would be enough to make Clown in an Cornfield a recommended read, the fact that he does in all within a creepy narrative about clowns murdering people with arrows and chainsaws out in the cornfield proves that Cesare is one of the best voices in contemporary horror. It also shows that his time as an up-and-coming author over; Cesare has arrived, and he’s here to stay.
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