The Pain Eater - Book Review
by Kyle Muntz
I received this book from the author in exchange for a fair review!
A raw but regulated story about a creature who eats human pain, The Pain Eater is a deep and meditative dive into grief, addiction, resentment, and mid-2000s angst.
What’s it about?
The Pain Eater is the story of two brothers from Michigan reunited after the death of their father. They’ve never been close, but now they have to live together―and it gets more difficult when one discovers a strange creature, vomited from the body of a dead cat. A creature that eats human pain. It feels good: too good. Soon Michael wants to hurt himself more, just so the pain can be taken away. But the more the creature becomes a part of his life, the more he damages everything around him. Some wounds are too deep to ever heal.
This review is going to be a bit worldly and full of tangents, but it’s a book that really resonated with me so I’m coming at it from more of an emotional standpoint. It’s one of those books that sits with you when you finish it.
This book was fascinating to me for a number of reasons, the topmost being the time period. Set in the mid-2000s, I was the same age during that time as one of the main characters, Steven, in the book. As such, I identified with his position (not his actions), as he was moving from life as a student to life as an adult, and, also, because, like him, I was slightly too old to participate in emo-culture (though I did like the music). This aspect was fascinating to me because enough time has passed that I can look critically back at that era as an era and can intimately understand the weltschmerz and despondency both Steven and Michael feel as young adults on the brink of true responsibility and massive life changes.
Yet, these aren’t the wealthy kids from The Secret History suffering from ennui. Michael and Steven live in a normal middle-class home and have enough money that their mother can afford to finance them for a year without either working (though I’m assuming the house was paid off), but they clearly aren’t wealthy. They’re also sad because their father - a stoic and aloof man - is dead and neither has a great relationship with the mother their father (clearly) vilified them towards. The depth of this relationship - how we soon learn that Michael and Steven treat the mother like crap for leaving their father, despite him being, from what I can tell, mildly if not outright emotionally abusive to her, and how Steven gradually learns this - was artfully done and so so realistic. It was incredible because it’s so nuanced. That being said, I didn’t really like any of the characters, but I’m not sure how much we’re supposed to like them. Hallie, because she doesn’t get a perspective, isn’t as fleshed out as the young men, though there is an attempt to “explain” why she and Michael are friends. Michael is a little prick you want to slap sometimes, and Steven is … kind of a wet blanket. Granted, he’s grieving and fresh out of college where he didn’t have a lot of friends, with no job or really any idea of what he wants to do, so I’d gather he’s a bit depressed. Still, not a dude I had a book crush on, even before he does something very stupid and selfish near the end of the book that he doesn’t seem to have a sliver of regret about.
Yet, are Michael and Steven realistic characters with actions and motivations that make sense? Entirely. Even Michael, who does some dumb shit, does the dumb shit 17-year-olds do. Anyway, the story itself is slow and plodding with only a semblance of a plot. We learn next to nothing about the creature, but this does not matter. The creature is not something we need to understand - this isn’t a ghost story horror, where learning the history of the entity will save the characters. The pain eater is something intangible, much like grief, addiction, and any emotion, really.
The book serves to ask the question: what do we do to feel something, anything, when we’re dead inside? Rather than what happens, you could easily see Steven and Michael engaging in other addictive behaviours, like drinking or drugs. It’s as much a story about crutches as it is about creatures.
The ending, while quick, worked for me. I don’t think we’re supposed to consider the implications behind the final scene, just the build-up to it. In this regard, the book really reminds me of indie films from the era, specifically Ginger Snaps (albeit with less gore), Buffalo 66 (more 90s) or even Willard.
Now, I will say, the book is DEPRESSING. Yet, not to get personal, but there were things in the novel that really hit home for me, so I found it very relatable. People who grew up in a relatively happy house would not “get it” in the same way, I think. Likewise, there are some content warnings for you: a cat dies a very sad death (not from violence, but I’d argue from neglect, though it’s not very pleasant) at the start and there is self-harm (although it's not really self-harm).
Overall, The Pain Eater is a literary horror. It’s not scary, it’s not a thriller, but it's an existential novel that shows that true horror is not the creatures we fear, but the people who fail us.