Published by Scribner Book Company on September 6, 2016
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When a nameless, struggling actor in 1970's New York gets the call that an enigmatic director wants him for an art film set in the Amazon, he flies to South America, no questions asked. He quickly realizes he’s made a mistake when it becomes clear that he's replacing another actor who quit after seeing the script—a script the director now claims doesn’t exist. The movie is over budget. The production team seems headed for a breakdown. The air is so wet that the celluloid film disintegrates.
But what the actor doesn’t realize is that the greatest threat might be the town itself, and the mysterious shadow economy that powers this remote jungle outpost. Entrepreneurial Americans, international drug traffickers, and M-19 guerrillas are all fighting for South America’s future—and the groups aren’t as distinct as one might think. The actor thought this would be a role that would change his life. Now he’s worried he won't survive it.
Inspired by a true story from the annals of 1970's Italian horror film, We Eat Our Own is a journey behind the scenes of a shocking film and a thoughtful commentary on violence and its repercussions.
“A challenging and original literary debut reimagining the filming of a 1979 horror film, partially inspired by the notorious ‘Cannibal Holocaust’”
I stumbled across Kea Wilson’s rather marvellous debut novel “We Eat Our Own” whilst on a recent trip to the States (I live in the UK) and although it is not strictly a horror novel it has much to offer genre fans, as well as those who prefer literary fiction. Whichever you prefer, prepare to be swept away by layers of sweaty paranoid horror and dark nights in the jungle. I devoured the 300 pages over three evenings, gripping me from the start, and as I spent my days in America doing tourist stuff my mind frequently wandered back to this beguilingly strange and unsettling novel. Thus far it has picked up great reviews from literary presses, but I think it deserves to be covered by horror websites also. Paul Tremblay is the only author I have seen recommend it so far and he is a man who frequently recommends great titles.
The premise should be familiar to any serious fan of horror: an Italian film director makes a horror film in the Colombian jungle. This film features cannibals and shortly the reader realises that the structure of director Ugo Velluto nasty little film adds a new element to the already jaded cannibal sub-genre of horror films, he is making a ‘film within a film’. Thus creating the ‘found footage’ style of film later made famous by ‘The Blair Witch Project’. Of course, serious horror fans know that ‘The Blair Witch’ did not invent the found footage film, it really began in 1980 with the infamous ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ directed by Ruggero Deodato. The history of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ is well documented and its worldwide notoriety needs no introduction. In the UK it was banned from video release in the early 1980s and for many years after in the ‘Video Nasties’ campaign led by Mary Whitehouse who had the nation getting their knickers in a twist.
If you skip to the end of “We Eat Our Own” Kea Wilson notes that she “owes a special debt to Ruggero Deodato’s amazing film ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ and the aftermath of its release, which provided a starting point for my imagination”. I don’t think that’s a spoiler as I picked up on the similarities straight away and was pleased to see Deodato credited after the finale. So this is an incredible piece of fiction inspired by one of the notorious horror films of all times, that in itself should be enough to engage any serious horror fans. I’m not going to make any further comparisons, as it is clearly fiction, instead drawing upon some of the other cool features of the book.
Although the plot is revealed through multiple points of view, a struggling unnamed actor dominates the proceedings. Fresh out of acting school and desperate for work he accepts a ‘leading’ role in a film directed by an obscure Italian horror film director. He is replacing another actor, who nobody seems to know what happened to. When he eventually arrives at a dangerous Colombian village where ‘Jungle Bloodbath’ is being filmed he struggles to make any kind of impact. If he is the leading actor why does he feature in hardly any scenes? Why is there no script? Why can he get no sense from anybody at all including the director Ugo Velluto? The actor is only ever known as his character’s name ‘Richard’ which is pretty strange in itself…..
This tale is told out of sequence. As early as page 11 the reader realizes that the director Ugo Velluto is being investigated by the Italian authorities for some unspecified aspect of ‘Jungle Bloodbath’ and these recurring sequences are presented as a series of legal interviews. Stylistically it’s a pretty weird book and most of the chapters are named after individual characters and presented in the third person, the book opens with: “You get the call during a rainstorm. It is 1979. Your agent doesn’t have offers like this for you very often…” however, when it flips to other actors in the film, also special effect artists the style changes. As the novel progresses the director seems to get madder and madder and eventually his own voice is integrated into the narrative near the end. It’s muddled, disjointed and abstract, but hey, so if the film ‘Jungle Bloodbath’ which has the same scenes shot over and over again and no plot to speak of….
At various points it’s hard to tell what is real and what is not…. Actors are often addressed as the name of their characters and a sense of foreboding (particularly for Richard) increases as the film seems to get more and more unhinged. I really liked the obscureness of it all and the madness of mixing indigenous natives with Americans and Italian actors and crew, many of which couldn’t speak the same language which only adds to the chaos. Throw into the mix, a very dangerous jungle, a film which was over budget and you have a very atmospheric novel.
‘We Eat Our Own’ had a secondary plot strand, which although vital, did not work quite so well for me involving the drug cartels, political unrest in the area and the dangers involved for foreigners making films in places where everyone has to be bribed or are just very easy targets. The strands merge together well enough, but from a personal point of view the sequences involving the making of the horror film were far more inventive and enjoyable reading than these sections.
I would highly recommend this beguiling and continually inventive literary take on the horror novel and although it’s probably not to the taste of all, I found it to be a breath of fresh air and Kea Wilson should be proud of a very neat debut. For those of you who know nothing of the history of ‘Cannibal Holocaust’ you may get a slightly different reading experience from this novel, I’m sure it will still be a good one though. I hope Kea Wilson’s publisher sent a complimentary copy to Ruggero Deodato, I sure would love to know what he made of his crazy namesake Ugo Velluto……
This review was originally published on The Ginger Nuts of Horror website where Tony regularly reviews books.
About Kea Wilson
Kea Wilson received her MFA from Washington University in St. Louis, where she lives and works as a bookseller. We Eat Our Own is her first novel.