Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Cuckoo is a Brutal, Remarkably Human Monster Story

Books Reviews Gretchen Felker-Martin
Gretchen Felker-Martin’s Cuckoo is a Brutal, Remarkably Human Monster Story

Gretchen Felker-Martin’s greatest skill as a writer is not her ability to craft horrific moments. There’s no shortage of those in her work, of course, as her breakout novel Manhunt proved quite well. Felker-Martin is extraordinarily gifted at giving us tactile, stomach-clenching moments of visceral terror. But within that relentless, unflinching approach to the horror is a storyteller interested in giving us human, vulnerable, deeply relatable moments of longing, determination, and ultimately survival. Those elements are there in Manhunt, but they’re arguably even more potent in Felker-Martin’s follow-up, the gripping and emotional monster story Cuckoo

The novel begins in 1995 with a group of LGBTQ+ youth who’ve all been dragged, often literally, to Camp Resolution, a conversion therapy center in the desert that’s meant to solve their “problems” and turn them back into the decent children their parents remember, or think they remember. When they arrive at the brutal place where they’re meant to submit to a predetermined form of “therapy”, each has their own concerns about what comes next.

Lesbian Nadine is a fighter, determined to live her life on her terms no matter how many bruises she earns or how much blood she has to spill along the way. Trans girl Shelby is unnerved by being forced to bunk in with the boys, but still finds a glimmer of hope in the connections she makes. Then there’s Jo, a gay girl with only one sympathetic link in her entire extended family as she tries to establish and reckon with her queer identity.

After a thrilling prologue that sets some especially monstrous stakes, Felker-Martin settles in for some very human horrors, backing away from the more supernatural elements of the story, if only for a while, so we can understand the cruelty and ignorance that these kids, and countless more like them, faced in a place like Camp Resolution. Yet even amid the rigidity and hostility of the environment they find themselves in, Felker-Martin’s queer youths keep reaching for the version of themselves they’d most like to be, creating a warm through-line of rugged beauty that runs throughout the story.

Of course, the book ultimately reckons with things that are even more monstrous than the horrors that humans can inflict on one another. Felker-Martin’s prose is once again laced with remarkably vivid descriptions of physical wounds, graphic battles for survival, and pure teeth-gritting pain. As with Manhunt, she’s playing with some very potent metaphors amid a story of queer people just trying to exist in a world that keeps trying to chew them up, and the devotion to those metaphors is both earnest and absolute. As the supernatural elements of the book become clearer, we get a story that reads like IT meets Invasion of the Body Snatchers, complete with skin-crawling creatures, deeply rooted trauma, and vivid gore. Felker-Martin has lost none of her muscular, evocative touch in this department, and it keeps the book churning forward like a demented freight train.

But it’s never just about the monsters, and that’s what makes Cuckoo shine so brightly. Even in the book’s darkest, most savage moments, when characters are inches from death, when they’re in so much pain they seem to be coming apart, the author never forgets their humanity, their desires, their hope. Cuckoo, for all its ambitious worldbuilding, reads like something more intimate than Manhunt, more inherently emotional in its depiction of young people just trying to push forward through the muck of hate that threatens to sink them, and Felker-Martin never loses sight of that intimacy.

Her characters, even the ones who might not be ready for the people they’re becoming, are full of yearning, of a sense that fulfillment will be somewhere up ahead, in the light at the end of a dark and precarious tunnel, and they keep reaching for that light no matter how dark things get. That gives the book a certain weight, and it’s enhanced at every turn by the extraordinary attention to detail that’s present in the prose.

Felker-Martin has the hypnotic ability to, even in her most brutal moments, brush in details about these young people and the lives they want, the lives they’re willing to fight for, that makes us feel like we don’t just know them, but want to help them, maybe even want to be them. They’re messy, they’re scarred, and they’re sometimes even frightening in their own ways, but Cuckoo never fails to make them into fully formed, compelling humans. That’s the novel’s greatest strength, and what makes Felker-Martin one of the most important voices in modern horror.

Cuckoo is available now wherever books are sold.

Matthew Jackson is a pop culture writer and nerd-for-hire who’s been writing about entertainment for more than a decade. His writing about movies, TV, comics, and more regularly appears at SYFY WIRE, Looper, Mental Floss, Decider, BookPage, and other outlets. He lives in Austin, Texas, and when he’s not writing he’s usually counting the days until Christmas.

Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Share Tweet Submit Pin