As it is October, I decided to find something dark in the slush pile. The Cloven fits the bill.
It is 1987. Malcolm Poole, an unpublished writer (self-publishing in this time means going down to Kinko's), answers a personal ad (as there is no World Wide Web, there are no online dating sites) from someone seeking a writer and asks that he describe his "heart's ideal." The 666 P.O. Box is a dead giveaway to the reader but not Poole. I'm not giving anything away by telling you that the Devil itself (for Muir's Satan is a hermaphrodite) has set this trap. But unlike most, if not all, sold-your-soul-to-the-Devil stories, Satan is in the foreground of the story instead of being relegated to a walk on role. You see, Satan has its reasons for picking Poole.
Poole is in the midst of writing what he feels will be the novel that finally lands him a publishing contract. A good deal of The Cloven is this manuscript: a story about a UC Berkeley professor named Mortimer who teaches an ethics class. The use of torture factors pretty heavily in his lectures. Willis Rutherford, a grad student auditing his class, is distraught as his girlfriend, Tamara, is missing. Willis has a vague empathic ability which proves to be both blessing and curse. While he suspects Mortimer knows something about Tamara's disappearance, he isn't certain that he isn't the one who's to blame.
Beaten down with repeated failure to get any sort of attention from the publishing industry, Poole's confidence is a mask which Muir tears away to reveal a troubled and yet possibly disturbed man. The reader doesn't know whether to pity or revile him. To further complicate things, Muir calls into question how much of Poole is in Professor Mortimer. Poole reflects on his unhappy childhood and gender confusion while Mortimer does the same. While the two characters' circumstances are different, there are enough similarities that Muir keeps you guessing until the very end.
Muir's Satan is no misunderstood dark prince. It is an angry Beast with nothing but anger for God and contempt for the human race. Muir provides visceral details whenever it is in the room with Poole. Its rant against God is well thought out and demonstrates a clear unblinking arrogance of ego.
At times, Muir resorts to unconventional writing styles: poetry, paragraph long sentences and screenplay-like setting of scenes. While these might be dismissed as errors by an inexperienced writer, it isn't the case here. Muir deliberately experiments with writing conventions as someone who still sees literature as an art form and not mere entertainment. At times, I found the paragraph long sentences tiring, but Muir's heart is in the right place and should be given credit for being brave enough to wander outside the norm.
The Cloven defies the "sell your soul" mold and provides an unconventional and unflinching look at the darkness within humanity. Strong characterization drives this unsettling psychological analysis of its protagonist. Muir doesn't shy away from the graphic, whether it be sex, torture or death though it isn't done for shock value. Instead, how characters respond to it determines how readers will respond to them.
The Cloven is available in print and on Kindle or through the author's website.