"The Savage Instinct" Book Review
Written by Sean M. Sandford
Published by Inkshares
Written by M.M. DeLuca
2021, 271 pages, Fiction
Released on March 30th, 2021
M.M. Deluca’s The Savage Instinct is a horror novel, sure. A story of mass murder, the destruction of self-worth, the debasement of strength, hope, and the will to live. That shit’s scary. But the worst of the novel’s horrors don’t come from the shadowed periphery, moans in the night, or curses from beyond the grave; nor is it manifested directly through Mary Ann Cotton, the first known serial killer in Britain’s history, and one of the novel’s more endearing characters. No, this story tells of a much more omnipresent class of horrors: that of a society overtly helmed by men, who have assigned themselves to choreograph all definitions of law and order, from the courtroom down to the living room. It’s a culture that prescribes the suggestion that a woman is better to, “…open [her] foolish ears to [her] husband like a dutiful wife should” (Deluca, 273), as quipped by one of the story’s more venomous characters.
Clara Blackstone is a young woman who has just been released from a year-long sojourn in an insane asylum. Her husband, Henry, wishes to cleanse her of her alleged lunacy and self-destruction by taking her to their home in Durham, England, where he can nurse her back to normalcy. It sadly turns out to be more in the sense of a prison guard than of a loving companion.
As they first arrive in Durham, word around town is ablaze with the presence of notorious baby-killer Mary Ann Cotton. She’s on trial after the alleged murder of multiple babies and a few husbands, and is being held at Durham’s local penitentiary. Both Mary Ann’s and Clara’s arrival in Durham as prisoners is simultaneous, the only difference being that Clara’s cell wears the ambiance of a home. Even though it holds a comparable chance of escape.
Clara is re-introduced to life outside, and immediately notes a constricting sense of imprisonment by Henry, not unlike those from which she has just endured at the mental asylum. This containment is arguably worse however, beneath the fictional sheen of freedom with the only family she knows. After she starts volunteering at the town prison, and confiding in Mary Ann Cotton, Clara begins to recognize that Henry should have no assumed right as her holder and keeper. Herein the routes of alternate methods of coping begin to germinate, all beneath the tutelage of Mrs. Cotton.
Deluca does an incredible job of illustrating the ways in which women have historically been forced to shoulder all burden, emotion and heartache, if they were to avoid being declared as out of their mind. A lot of the blatant sexism and tyranny brought forward in this book is alive and well today, if only more cleverly masked.
Deluca also paints a portrait of the culture in 1870’s England with fine and delicate marks, touching on the most minute of details, right down to subtle mannerisms and choice of words. She also shows us some of the absolutely bonkers styles of treatment that had been hailed as breakthrough psychological advances. And the ways in which some people were happy to use their own fictional graph of mental health as an excuse to put someone in a place where they’re essentially erased from society.
Her characters and settings are all so detailed and vivid, I would read a sentence and feel like I was watching the interaction in person. She includes so many subtle and minute aspects of her environments that I felt like she was sitting right there, describing to me what she sees. I very much appreciated the ways in which, although this book doesn’t include any literal ghosts or monsters, every page feels steeped in a hue of darkness. I enjoyed reading it very much and often had a tough time putting it down.
This page includes affiliate links where Horror DNA may receive a small commission at no extra cost to you.