Book Review : Mark Jaskowski - The Heartbeat Harvest (2017)
The name Mark Jaskowski probably doesn't ring a bell and it's fine. Before releasing The Heartbeat Harvest last winter, he only had two short stories published to his name. There is very little information available about Jaskowski online, but certain factors hinted at his talent: his publisher Broken River Books is notoriously picky and forward thinking; the Clive Barker meets Reservoir Dogs blurb was as intriguing and promising as any piece of promotional literature I've ever read and last but not least, guys who keep their head down and don't prance around online tend to always deliver. So, did The Heartbeat Harvest pack up the goods like I thought it would or am I just out of my fucking mind?
Unfortunately, I can't give you a straightforward answer on this one. I'll review it the best I can and you'll to figure out the rest.
So, The Heartbeat Harvest is the story of a drug-dealing couple murdering their supplier, the aptly named Slim, and taking off. Seems straightforward enough, except the supplier is inexplicably not dead and wants revenge of these double-crossing assholes. It gets more confusing from there. The narrative starts skipping from a group of character to another, following both the double-cross and the underlying supernatural mystery of Slim's survival. And the latter takes its sweet time to unfold. Mark Jaskowski introduces a wide array of characters who each have their role to play even if it's not quite evident at first: Stacie, Asher, Alan, Father Abatangelo and several others. Too many for me to keep up with, really. Sorry if I cannot be any clearer than that. I'm still unsure how much from The Heartbeat Harvest I've actually understood.
The cool thing about Mark Jaskowski savant mix of crime fiction and horror is that it explores the deeper motivation of characters that would otherwise be cliché. Why would anyone become a drug dealer? Why would anybody betray a business partner for a finite amount of money? Questions like these. Using horror tropes allows Jaskowski to confront themes like power, belonging and the refusal of boundaries more directly. The latter is very important to The Heartbeat Harvest. Characters cheat their way out of natural boundaries all the time, which highlights human nature's yearning for the intangible. People tend to always want what they don't have instead of appreciating what they do have and I thought The Heartbeat Harvest allegorized this impossible conundrum is a subtle and classy way.
The structure of The Heartbeat Harvest is going to alienate certain readers because it makes it difficult to follow. Jaskowski skips from a set of characters to another without giving much context. It wouldn't be unheard of if he kept switching between the same groups, but it's completely unpredictable. Sometimes, you're brought back to characters you already know. Sometimes you're introduced to a new set of people. Personally, I didn't mind the skipping as much as I did the expanding cast. The who's who was confusing, but beyond that I didn't know who exactly I was supposed to care about and I'm one of these guys who's hardwired to care about people, even make-believe ones. But I did care about Slim. Slim was my guy. Even when he was not on the page, his influence on The Heartbeat Harvest was palpable.
Did I like The Heartbeat Harvest or not? I think I did, but I'm not sure I've understood it. I did love Mark Jaskowski's brand of subtle and understated horror. It was a looming sense of dread as much as it was blood and tentacles. My problem with the book is that I lost the highway a couple times and I didn't really understand who mattered and who didn't. Jaskowski was being ambitious, though and while it lost me at times, it's hard to fault him for having strong creative vision. Please, read The Heartbeat Harvest if you think the Clive Barker meets Reservoir Dogs is a cool idea and make up your mind about it. I would gladly discuss the book with you and maybe we can enrich one another's interpretation.