A Choir of Ill Children by Tom Piccirilli

by Lindsey Ragsdale (@Leviathan15)

Horror novels set in small, isolated towns are a dime a dozen. The idea of characters harboring their own dark secrets, while simultaneously wanting to know every bit of their neighbor’s business, is a familiar and successful trope in fiction. Perhaps this is because many readers are all-too-familiar with this setting, having experienced it in their daily lives. 

Take this simple premise, set it in a swamp, sprinkle in a little witchcraft, stir in some very memorable characters and shocking imagery, and you get A Choir of Ill Children.

Behind the Pen

The late American author Tom Piccirilli – a master of novels, short stories, and poetry – wrote works in the fields of mystery, horror, erotica, and science fiction. Piccirilli received numerous accolades for his work. He was a four-time winner of the Bram Stoker Award in four separate categories, including the first-ever Stoker Award given for Best Poetry Collection in 2000, A Student of Hell. Piccirilli also received the International Thriller Writers Award twice for The Midnight Road in 2008 and The Coldest Mile in 2010. He has written two series; the murder mystery-themed Felicity Grove, and Cold, about a reformed criminal uncovering secrets from  his past. 

In addition to his extensive body of fiction, Piccirilli edited anthologies of poetry and short fiction, analyzed Tolkien, and published a writing guide. He even wrote a graphic novel, Bullet Ballerina, and a novel in the Hellboy series, Emerald Hell.

Sadly, Tom Piccirilli died in 2015, but he left behind an extensive collection of work for readers to peruse and enjoy.

A No-Spoiler Summary from Goodreads

A Choir of Ill Children is the startling story of Kingdom Come, a decaying, swamp backwater that draws the lost, ill-fated, and damned.

Since his mother’s disappearance and his father’s suicide, Thomas has cared for his three brothers—conjoined triplets with separate bodies but one shared brain—and the town’s only industry, the Mill.

Because of his family’s prominence, Thomas is feared and respected by the superstitious swamp folk. Granny witches cast hexes while Thomas’s childhood sweetheart drifts through his life like a vengeful ghost and his best friend, a reverend suffering from the power of tongues, is overcome with this curse as he tries to warn of impending menace. All Thomas learns is that “the carnival is coming.”

Torn by responsibility and rage, Thomas must face his tormented past as well as the mysterious forces surging toward the town he loves and despises.

The HOWL Society Takeaway

Discussion from this week was some of the most exciting and polarizing we’ve experienced for a single read this year. As the story drew readers further into the backwaters of Kingdom Come, reactions ranged from interested, to pleasantly horrified, to plain old horrified, to disgusted– whoops, almost gave away too much there. 

Most HOWLers found the first third of the novel compelling. Virtual heads nodded in agreement during early days of discussion. Alas, we should’ve known, ‘twas but the calm before the storm. Many readers were attracted by Piccirilli’s prose and vibrant descriptions of Kingdom Come’s characters. The novel is told in a series of vignettes from the perspective of Thomas, the main character, which at times made the novel feel dream-like or disorienting. The grim starkness of the setting and characters were compared to The Cipher by Kathe Koja, a read from August. One of our members described their initial impression: “This reads like something Faulkner might write after eating an entire package of allergy medicine.” Other descriptions, such as “unique and bizarre,” “gritty,” and “problematic” were served up for comparison. A few readers made stylistic comparisons to Chuck Palahniuk’s prose. However, if anyone ever picks up the film rights to this novel, don’t expect a blockbuster smash starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton as two of the three triplets to hit the box office next year. The pack soldiered on, finding this book, in the words of one member, “weirdly irresistible.” So compelling was initial feedback, that some stray members hoping to skip this week considered quickly catching up. A Choir Of Ill Children has been on the shorter side of an average HOWLS read, clocking in at 240 pages.

As the plot moved along, it presented several fresh mysteries and a continued sense of disorientation. Most HOWLers arrived at a general consensus that, while Piccirilli creates a whole bevvy of characters, almost as if he were summoning clowns from a clown car with ease, he still manages to make them distinctive with their own unique backstories. However, our pack began to thin. We had a few members who finished well in advance, stating that the prose kept them flipping pages, but they weren’t sold by the end. (It is a testament to our spoiler-free dedication that our early finishers kept their lips sealed tightly!) Discussion soon heated up, drawing attention to the book’s use of shock value, offensive terminology, questionable sexualisation, and speculation about plot direction.

Our respected THOT Father, Lord Mordi, threw a wrench into the rigorous, roiling reviews, giving the pack a “Would You Rather” scenario: “Would you rather spend an entire day with Ned (protagonist from Harvest Home, a former read) or Thomas (from A Choir of Ill Children)?” Amidst the silence, one member piped up that Thomas was a more compelling option. Score one for Piccirilli.

Alas, Piccirilli’s point was quickly snatched away when our readers, advancing further into the book, began to realize there were so many characters at this point making up the tableau of Kingdom Come that it was hard to keep them apart. Our pack was flipping to earlier pages, keeping notes, and feverishly creating bulletin board diagrams into the wee hours in order to remember Who was the Witch, Where was the Private Investigator, and What Exactly Did The All-Day Lollipop Have To Do With The Teacher’s Daughter?

The floodgates were opened as the pack threw around speculations regarding character motivations and the answer to the “Whodunnit?” presented. Additional supernatural elements came into play, cementing this novel in a Southern Gothic framework and ensuring that no one reading this novel would ever be able to think of the word “vinegar” in the same way. 

Yes, you there, reading this review. Are you still on the fence about joining the HOWL Society? Let me assure you that a sure-fire way to spice up a book club discussion is to read a novel that contains any semblance of a mystery, and then dive deep into a bunch of guesses, predictions, and very specific half-baked conspiracy theories put forth by people who are reading the same book. The obvious result is equal parts hilarity and revelation, creating a lively, animated reading experience. You get an entire pack of people agreeing, disagreeing, introducing pertinent background and historical information, including you in all the inside jokes, and just plain listening to what you have to say. Welcome to our world.

It is in this spirit that A Choir of Ill Children made for a very dynamic and memorable discussion, even if not everyone could wholeheartedly recommend it. However almost everyone who began the novel burned bright with the desire to finish despite all the book’s obstacles. Reader after reader chimed in before our last discussion to mention they had finished well in advance and couldn’t wait to throw their thoughts out on the last day. If anything, this spurred a general desire to finish the book instead of tossing it back on the heap, half-read and forgotten.

Wrapping up, opinions varied wildly. Some readers loved everything about this book, mentioning in particular the wild characterizations and dramatic reveals. Many lost the thread of the plot or found themselves, as they read, disconnecting from the main events. Piccirilli’s writing style was overall praised, but the book itself fell short for many HOWLers. 

In Their Own Words: HOWLers’ Reviews (Spoiler Free)

  • “A choir of ill children.” It reads like the author came up with this phrase (and it’s a good one) and then wrote a book around it. And if he did, great. I enjoyed the story. The interesting characters pull it up to a 6 for me. The conclusion was a bit of a let down. It’s grotesque and weird.

  • After buckling in tight for the bayou boat ride, I oohed and ahhed as Piccirilli offered a tantalizing tour of his supernatural swampland—from its kooky characters to its dilapidated domiciles and muggy marshes. However, somewhere along the way, I realized the boat was going nowhere. With only a few chapters left, I reluctantly unbuckled myself and hurled my body headlong into the swamp, deciding that gator-induced disembowelment was a better fate than having to finish the ride.
    ~Lord Mordi

  • While loaded with vibrant, descriptive prose, this book lacks in plot, and seemingly attempts to make up for it with shock value for shock’s sake. Fleshed out characters and intense moments of action are not enough to hold the book together as a whole. Was difficult to finish.

  • Juggles many morally dubious balls in the air with impressive confidence. Certainly original. However, extremely unpleasant.

  • Although it’s a bit aimless with its plot, it managed to be a fun read with some brilliant moments of prose.

  • A lot of great visuals and characters, but ultimately the plot didn’t grab me. It felt like it was somewhere in between character vignettes and a full plot-driven story, and didn’t really do justice to either.

  • The author has some beautiful writing, but the story was bleak, gross, and depressing. I wish I could get my time back!
    ~Cheese Dance

  • A poetic, phantasmagorical mess of a novel. Well written, unique, strange, but ultimately a book that struggles to hold itself together.

  • The writing is incredible, but the story is aimless. There are too many directions, and the end seems to belong to a completely different book.

  • The occasionally entertaining wordplay could not redeem 250 pages of shock value for the sake of shock value.

  • Absurdity + Surrealism + Swamp = WTF. Even though I didn’t exactly know what was happening most of the time, the characters are hilarious and strange and dark. Worth reading if you want something really “out there.”

  • A Choir of Ill Children is a rich tapestry of flawed characters and dingy set-pieces. Thomas, wealthy and in control of himself if not all of Kingdom Come, makes every conversation a dance, the reader never knowing if the other participant is a partner, enemy, or something of both.
    ~Chris O’Halloran

  • What a blast! The surrealness will draw you in and the mystery will keep the pages turning. Better than “Blue Velvet.”
    ~Joel Wallace

In Conclusion

The Society is honored to have coined the term “Vegemite Book.” For those who are unfamiliar, Vegemite is an Australian food spread made from brewer’s yeast. It is commonly eaten on sandwiches and toast. The taste definitely does not appeal to everyone, but some adore it. It is in this spirit that we have dubbed A Choir of Ill Children as a Vegemite Book. May its legacy live forever, and we wouldn’t mind reading another one of its kind in the future.

(A special thanks to our Australian HOWLers!)

HOWLS Score: Snarl! (2/5)

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