Imagine that Stephen King wrote E.T., and you’ll have an idea of what’s it’s like to read Bent Heavens, the new science fiction horror novel by Daniel Kraus (co-author of the Shape of Water with Guillermo del Toro). It’s a fast-paced, somewhat horrifying story about teenage girl, Liv Fleming, whose father, Lee, disappears for good not long after returning from two years during which he claims to have been abducted by aliens. Despite the social, emotional, and psychological damage her father has done to his family in his little Iowa town, Liv and her best friend, Doug Monk, carry on his tradition of maintaining traps he set all around their yard, before his final disappearance, to catch any aliens that might come seeking to abduct him again. And hopefully, Liv can prove him right after all. When tension and conflict at high school become impossible for Liv, she decides it’s time to get over the loss of her father. She sets out to destroy the traps at last and end her living nightmare, and guess what she finds…
Bent Heavens is narrowed to so few characters for its 304 pages that it feels as claustrophobic as Liv’s father’s weapon-filled backyard shed. Aside from Liv and Doug, the story contains brief appearances by Liv’s mother, Liv’s love interest Bruno Mayorga (who happens to be an illegal “alien”), Liv’s English teacher (who has taken Liv’s father’s job at her school), a mysterious journalist named Carbajal, and few others. The characters are unique and well drawn, each with quirks that play into their roles in the story. Liv is kind and resourceful. Doug is a weird loner from a tough upbringing and loyal to a fault. Liv’s mother is battling an alcohol problem as a result of her husband’s insanity and final disappearance. Carbajal, the one person who might know something about Lee’s disappearance, is jaded and physically deformed. Together, they form an interesting ensemble, though at some points it seems they exist only to forward the intense plot.
The plot of Bent Heavens is very straightforward. Liv wants to find out what happened to her father so she can finally put the years’ long nightmare to bed. With some pretty effective jumping back and forth the plot covers the period beginning when Lee arrives naked at the town square after a two-year absence and proceeds through Liv’s desperate, harrowing, night-long quest to find out what happened to him after his second and final disappearance. Kraus does an excellent job of building tension throughout the novel by forcing Liv through a quick-hitting sequence of increasingly challenging complications, both physically and emotionally, from a fight with a teacher to a broken toe and more, until at last she must finally seek out answers on her own in the explosive—because what’s a big ending without some kind of explosions, right?—ending.
Kraus is an excellent writer, and what I most enjoyed about Bent Heavens is his ability, as story tension increased, to turn the most mundane of settings, an old and nearly forgotten Iowa farm town, into the creepiest collection of corn rows, woods, silos, and old farmhouses you would never want to be caught in alone. As Liv’s fear and horror increase, the settings, through her eyes, from Carbajal’s dark, stinking apartment in Nowheresville to the farmlands on the edge of America’s former self, become increasingly malignant and claustrophobic. The reader feels immersed not only in this backward, useless part of America’s erstwhile heartland, but also in Liv’s head, seeing things she really, really does not want to see but cannot avoid. It’s a gripping trip through a mind-boggling labyrinth that completely captures the intensity and strangeness of Liv’s quest.
Overall, I enjoyed Bent Heavens very much. If I had to complain about something (and I don’t but I will), much of the complexity of the plot (of which there isn’t much to begin with, which is okay) and its reveal is based on the kind of misunderstanding that happens in the telephone game. One person says something, and as it is passed on to others, the words get twisted and mistaken until the original meaning is lost. It’s a little bit gimmicky once, but more than once it becomes thematic, to what effect, I am still not sure. Perhaps, we live our lives thinking we understand things that we really don’t. I’m not sure if that’s what Kraus intended, but it fits.
Nevertheless, with regard to themes and authorial intention, Bent Heavens is fairly deep, exploring love and loss, family relationships, isolation, change, helplessness, revenge, brutality, and more. Though it may seem like a lot for a medium-length novel, the themes are deftly handled, thoughtful yet unobtrusive, with perhaps one exception. Bent Heavens is a cautionary tale, and the author even includes an explanation of such as an afterword. I won’t spoil it for those of you who might want to read this enjoyable and entertaining novel, but at some times, especially in the middle of the book, the skeletons of that cautionary tale can be seen a little too clearly through its skin and flesh. As such, Bent Heavens may make a better edge-of-your-seat paced movie, which I expect will follow, than a book in which the reader has time to dwell on each moment, each scene.
But is it grimdark? As the characters start to unravel the mystery of Lee’s disappearance, they definitely lose their moral compass, which lends itself to a major theme of the cautionary tale, which is probably why the publishers asked us to review it. The settings, even the mundane ones, are quite grim, and there is enough violence of sorts to be grimdark in a horror-novel sort of way. Overall, though, Liv never really loses her way. She is a hero, albeit one with plenty of regrets, but still a hero. So, if you’re looking for a very entertaining read that crosses the line between alien-contact science fiction and rural American horror, or even a fast-paced read with a strong female protagonist, Bent Heavens should be on your TBR. If you’re looking to stick to your traditional fighting fiction grimdark fantasy or sci-fi, this might not be it.
Bent Heavens is scheduled for release on 25 February 2020 in the US and 1 March 2020 in the UK and elsewhere.
This review was originally published in Grimdark Magazine #21