The Jersey Devil

Writer: Hunter Shea
Publisher: Pinnacle Books
Genre: Horror

A review by Amelia Wellman

Jersey DevilA good horror novel, one that gets you nice and close to the supernatural world from the safety of three hundred or so pages, is one of my favourite things. Reading something scary and having your stomach clench and your heart race is a delight and it’s why I’m always on the lookout for new scary stories. Unfortunately, every aspect of The Jersey Devil is storytelling gone wrong. There is no right or wrong way to tell a story, but there are certain guidelines and tropes that genres will follow to achieve the desired effects. In horror, you want to use your atmosphere of dread and helplessness to build suspense that will ultimately lead to something scary. The scariest thing about The Jersey Devil is how badly Shea managed to mangle the legend.

Sixty years ago, Sam Willet came face to face with the Jersey Devil and his family has been mysteriously marked by the beast. Since then, Sam, his son, and his son’s children have been arming themselves to face it again. Their time is now. The Devil’s stomping grounds, the Pine Barrens of Southern New Jersey, are alive again with strange sightings, disappearances, and grisly deaths. The Willets head out, not looking to prove the legend true, but to kill the beast and end the mystery that surrounds their unknown connection to it. This isn’t a standard Jersey Devil story. This is a Devil that’s been mutated by chemicals and, more disturbing than that, a Devil that’s been breeding.

I’ve never read any other Hunter Shea book. The Jersey Devil was my first. And considering what a terrible indictment it is of Shea’s skill, it will be the last of his books that I read. And I should make myself clear, that after struggling through these three hundred and fifty pages, I use the word skill very loosely. Shea’s style is completely uninspired. Never have I been as bored with a horror story as I was with The Jersey Devil! There is absolutely no atmosphere created. Horror depends on atmosphere. Ninety percent of this story takes place in the bright, shining light of day with a family more or less trained in special-ops and toting AR-15s over their shoulders.

Skillful writing could have made this scary, or suspenseful at the very least. Anything can be scary with the right pacing and descriptors. The Jersey Devil has neither. The flow of the story is as follows: one or two chapters detailing the people going into the Pine Barrens and dying by the Devils, one or two chapters detailing the Willet family, one or two chapters detailing a cryptozoologist’s pursuit of the bizarre, rinse and repeat. There’s never enough time spent with any one of the main characters to learn anything substantial about them. There’s seven main characters in this story. You won’t care what happens to any of them because Shea thinks that jumping over to some random person dying in a gory way is what horror is. When time should be spent focusing in on character’s fears and reactions to those fears to grow paranoia, we are instead introduced to a new set of people that are literally nothing but splatter-gore filler.

Shea’s only description of the “horror” these creatures bring is that they “tear [people] to shreds”. There are chapters dedicated to nature hikers being torn to shreds. Campers being torn to shreds. Asshole YouTubers being torn to shreds. This is what’s supposed to scare us as readers? Cut and paste chapters of people being torn to shreds? Over and over again I had to read of people in the woods, then one goes missing, then the other finds a pile of their eviscerated body, yada yada yada. The word ‘eviscerated’ was all me, by the way. There’s nothing that descriptive in this book.

These chapters of gore and chaos should have been used as framing device. Start the book with a few short chapters detailing the gore-porn aspect of the Devils. To Shea’s credit, this is how the book begins. But then it never stops. There is a whole chapter committed to a group of retirees camping in the Barrens. We get back story on them. Then they’re killed by the Devil and his mutated offspring. This happens more than half way through the narrative. We already know that the Devils are savaging people, we don’t need every other chapter to have new people introduced, with detailed histories presented to us, to then have them die in the same way as the last set of people! Move the fuck on!

It’s actually quite shocking how the author managed to raise not a single hair on the back of my neck in a location like the Pine Barrens! The Barrens are a million acres of pine trees and swamps. The sandy ground makes human inhabitation near impossible, not that people haven’t tried. There are abandoned towns and factories all throughout the forest, crumbling and being taken back by nature. The Barrens are isolated. Desolate. Foreboding. Insert any other creepy adjective you can think of here! Shea spends the whole of this narrative telling us that the Barrens are scary instead of employing any kind of skill in the writing that would make us experience that scariness first hand.

Right near the end of the story we’re given information that’s supposed to be the big shocking, scary reveal. Spoiler alert (if you still care enough that you may one day read this book): the Jersey Devil has been kidnapping women, keeping them in the woods, and raping them to breed. You hardly have to say anything at all when talking about rape. Any sane person will be upset at the prospect of their bodily autonomy being taken away from them. But instead of saying as little as possible, making the reader draw their own conclusions, Shea goes into loving detail over and over again about the pain (of both rape and birth) and describing the dog-like penises that these creatures have. My first reaction? Fuck off! There were so many ways the story could have gone without resorting to the Jersey Devil raping women but it didn’t and that’s lazy, insensitive trash! Don’t equate things like rape to a horror atmosphere!

I could give you a full dissertation about why women don’t need to be raped to be tragic, sympathetic characters, but I won’t. I’ll leave with this thought instead: if you’re not a good enough writer to create a horror atmosphere with things like adjectives and pacing, don’t assume that throwing in rape will fix that!

Then there’s the gore porn action. It’s presented in the same boring manner as everything else: badly. The same stock phrasing of the Devil swooping through the air. Of people seeing the beast and describing it physically every single time. Of the gore that follows being torn to shreds. It’s exhausting in its repetitiveness. Then when anything close to original or exciting happens… it just doesn’t! There’s literally a part where the Jersey Devil has his dick shot off. I don’t have one myself, but you think that the loss of a sexual organ would illicit some kind of reaction from me. Nope. There’s nothing to react to. We’re told the Devil howls and then takes off. Characters say they have to find him before he rapes any more women. Another character says he can’t by stating out right that he shot his dick off. There’s no descriptions of blood, of the organ slapping to the ground, of the Devil realizing it’s missing what is arguably the most important part of its body to this story. If you’re going to make your book so crass as to have a dick shot off in the first place, at least make it visceral. Raise a reaction in me that’s not just boredom!

The Verdict
Skip it.
Don’t read The Jersey Devil! Don’t buy it new or used. Don’t borrow it from the library. Just don’t waste your time! The story is lazy in every single one of its aspects. The atmosphere is non-existent, depending more on guns and gore than slow, tense build-ups. The characters are all unlikable as you’ll spend more time reading about random people dying than you will learning about them. The action is tedious because the same thing is offered up every single time. The book is a constant slog through the unimaginably boring! A legend has been ruined in this book. For anyone looking for a creepy, atmospheric Jersey Devil experience, my suggestion is to pack a kit and go camp in the actual Pine Barrens.

Amelia Wellman
I read, I write, I play videogames, Ghostbusters is my favourite thing in the known universe, but quasars come in at a close second. I've been known to cry at the drop of a hat over happy and sad things alike. I've also been known to fly into a rage if things don't go my way, leading to many a fight in high school and breaking someone's nose on the TTC one time. I'm an anxious introvert but also a loud-mouthed bad influence. Especially on my cat. He learned it from watching me, okay!

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