In the interest of full disclosure, I am a long time friend with author Doug Brunell, but this review is as objective and fair as possible.
Reading “Nothing Men” is a lot like the beginning of a rollercoaster, where you’re riding up further and further and building up to momentum. You’re sitting waiting thinking “Here it comes, here it comes,” and when the rush finally does come, author Doug Brunell delivers on a final half that soaked with blood, guts, and an ending that will likely make you re-think travelling to small towns ever again. “Nothing Men” made me think about the like of Herschell Gordon Lewis, Tobe Hooper, and prompted flashbacks of films like “The Wicker Man” and “Texas Chainsaw Massacre.”
No matter how far you run, you’re never really quite out of the grasp of the environment and its deadly residents that dwell in its bowels, and that sends a surge of dread and a bleak atmosphere in “Nothing Men” that’s wrenching. Especially in its final pages. Author Brunell simply doesn’t let his characters off the hook, and punishes just about everyone in the book. It’s almost like a splatter version of “Funny Games” at times. Partly they pay for playing god, and partly for their hubris in the situation. Hubris is the ultimate undoing for just about everyone in the book, and Brunell unfolds layers of Valley Bottom slowly with every chapter.
For years, the land of Trinity Alps has been plagued with myths of Bigfoot, and Vampires with the ability to walk in the daylight and prey on human beings with ease. Luck for the Kenningtons, they’ve just arrived at Valley Bottom, a discreet small town in the middle of nowhere that seems to welcome the trio of tavellers with open arms and will do anything to make them feel welcome. Just their luck, Valley Bottom has been the victim of harsh weather ultimately stranding the Kenningtons in town, and they’re welcomed to stay by the local patriarch Momma Rose, a large whale of a woman who runs the town’s only restaurant that serves the best burgers and steaks in the country. When Mark Kennington’s wife Jen decides to ride back to civilization with the town’s mechanic, Mark and his daughter Amanda stay in Valley Bottom awaiting the repairs of their only ride out of town.
All seems well as Mark and Amanda do their best to stave off boredom thanks to the towns’ friendly residents, and Mark takes advantage of the situation to begin writing a new book about the barns at the end of the town he and his daughter Amanda have been told to stay away from. Mark soon begins to investigate the forbidden barns and meets a man he recognizes that could explain why the town is so unusual, and why Mark and his daughter are never leaving. Author Brunell has a surefire knack for pacing and exposition, building on the premise with mounting tension and gradually bringing down our guard, while sporadically visiting hapless travelers as they’re kidnapped, snared, and tortured by a roaming group of hunters. An entire bus of high school students are even taken hostage and seized by the violent hunters that will stop at nothing to bring the teens back to their stomping grounds. Brunell has a real talent for adding tension and dread to every moment, and rises to the challenge with some truly exciting moments of horror, especially mid-way when an escaped hostage tries to flee from the vicious hunters.
The only caveat to “Nothing Men” is there is a lot of story and a ton of exposition to lay down for the novel, so it takes a good while before we garner forward motion in to the story. I kept thinking to myself, “Okay… is this all going somewhere?” a few times, but sticking with it proved to deliver some fun rewards. When author Brunell does put the wheels in motion and turns the screws on this situation, things go from bad to worse, and the gore and grue are disgusting, sickening and present with an undertone of dark comedy. The hunting coat made of the particular material was demented. I cared about the characters, and mostly I really loved to hate the villains of the book, even when partaking in moments of sheer lunacy that bordered on sadistic and nauseating. The characters really jump out from the narrative and present such interesting quirks that it’s often tough to root against them, especially supporting character Charles. “Nothing Men” is a very grim and gruesome tale about the small town with the great burgers that promises you’ll never leave. No matter what.