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Rotters Digs Deep Into The Dark

By Betsy Mikel in Arts & Entertainment on Jun 28, 2011 6:00PM

2011_06Rotters.jpg For anyone who likes dark, macabre and a little bit weird, Rotters is a book to consider getting your grimy little hands on. Though the cover looks disturbing, author Daniel Kraus sets up his story innocently enough. Joey seems like an average high-school student. But when his mother suddenly dies, he’s left with no living relatives except his father. Joey’s never met him, but he has no choice but to ship off to a small town in Iowa to start a new school and a new life living with a stranger. As if that isn’t challenging enough, Joey’s dad, Harnett, who lives in a cabin on the outskirts of town that smells like garbage, is totally uninterested in working on any sort of relationship with his long lost son. At this point, about 80 pages in, Rotters feels like a wholesome YA book that’s on the path to teaching readers an important message about father-son relationships.

But then Joey discovers what Harnett does for a living. This is the turning point of Rotters, because everything before this discovery is different than everything after. Joey’s dad is a grave robber. He digs up graves and takes valuables to sell. In order to not raise suspicions, he replaces all the bodies, coffins and graves after he’s finished.

Joey decides he wants to be a grave robber, too. Harnett agrees teach him. And as with any seasoned tradesmen who has a young and clueless apprentice trailing him and slowing down his work, Harnett makes sure that Joey will work harder than he ever has before to learn the ropes. Joey has a lot to learn. And as readers, we have a lot to learn, too. Who knows anything about robbing graves?

The teacher-learner structure offers Kraus the perfect opportunity to interject “fun facts” about grave robbing and its history. Kraus did his research, and is more than happy to share with readers everything they didn’t know they wanted to know about embalming, coffin liquor (aka black slime, “the result of bacteria in the casket's vacuum turning the corpse to mud”) and more.

Of course, there’s more to Rotters than factoids about how bodies decompose. Kraus creates what could be an alternate universe of the grave robbing industry. People have been robbing graves for centuries, for science, research and money, and Harnett and Joey aren’t the only ones still doing it. With such a long underground history, there are superstitions, myths and whisperings of long-lost treasures. Joey gets caught up in all of it. Since he’s narrating Rotters, the readers do, too.

As Joey’s discovering the deep, dark secrets about his father’s trade and learning more about the history of his family, so are the readers. When Joey begins to make questionable decisions and take his revenge past what seems healthy or logical, readers can understand where he’s coming from. They’ve followed Joey on his path from happy-go-lucky straight-A student to a morbid, grave digging obsessed and more-moody-than-usual teenager. Joey’s story grows more far-fetched and unreal; dark, macabre and a little weird, to be exact.

Daniel Kraus reads from Rotters on Thursday, June 30 at Bucket O' Blood Books, 2307 N. Milwaukee Ave at 7:30 p.m. And, check out our Chicago Author Spotlight Q&A with him.