For the third installment in the chronicles of Andrew Mayhem, Jeff Strand gives us a quieter Andrew Mayhem, a weary one, a guy who looks at trouble and prefers not to get involved. Of course, loose ends from his previous book show up in the form of The Headhunter, and he cannot help but get at least a little involved, but he is certainly not sticking his neck out unnecessarily. He promised his wife, and a promise to Helen is a promise worth keeping (on threat of The Gaze or a harsh word, neither of which he wants). When a woman approaches him at the new, upscale coffee shop Java Joint (The Blizzard, we learn, sadly burned down a week before) Andrew shoots down her request to deliver a suitcase with questionable contents to Arizona. It is a hundred thousand dollar payoff, but he turns it down flat. That makes him a happier, better man. He even gets a nine to five job to help stay out of trouble. The family gets a dog, a snorting pug named Joe. His best pal Roger Tanglen is in a solid relationship—though Andrew dislikes the blonde bombshell he is dating for unspecified reasons. It looks like Andrew’s world might well be on the up and up. Unfortunately, when your name is Mayhem and happen to be a trouble magnet, it is only a matter of time before trouble comes a calling. That is bad for Andrew and his support network, but good for Jeff Strand’s readers.
Situation new normal is shaken up by a bit of good news. Helen is pregnant even though our hero got himself the big V. Well, these things happen, of course, but it is a great sore spot for comedy in the Mayhem household when Helen makes the announcement to Theresa and Kyle:
“I’m going to have a baby,” Helen told them, beaming.
“Yay!” Kyle shouted.
“I thought Daddy was snipped,” said Theresa.
Helen looked simultaneously horrified and way-too-amused. “Theresa!”
“You said he was, that one time when I asked why I couldn’t have a baby sister.”
“Why are you telling her these things?” I asked Helen. “What’s wrong with the stork?”
“Daddy, I’m nine,” said Theresa. “Duh.”
“What was snipped?” Kyle asked.
“Nothing,” I told him. “They’re both crazy in the head.”
Kyle twirled his index finger in a circle around his ear.
“I thought that since Daddy was snipped, you couldn’t have a baby,” said Theresa.
“The doctors didn’t snip hard enough,” Helen informed her.
“Were their scissors dull?”
“All right, enough!” I demanded. (Page 19)
After the revelation, the family decides to take a bit of a vacation. Roger and Samantha can come along, of course, as the Mayhem family loads up a big motor home and heads into the woods for a little camping trip. What can possibly go wrong?
Of course, everything can and it most likely will. However, Andrew decides to do everything by the book. When Samantha proposes a shortcut, he shoots down the idea. The route they picked is fine. No shortcuts. He listens when the creepy guy at a gas station that sells stale candy and spooky pickles tells them their campground destination is
“Not the safest place to be.”
The old man nodded. “Bad elements there.”
“What kind of bad elements?”
“Dangerous ones.” He coughed. “Deadly ones.” He coughed, again. “You don’t want to be anywhere near Wreitzer Park, trust me on this.” (Page 24)
Andrew heeds the advice and they pick a new location. No more unnecessary risks. Unfortunately, they stumble into a situation.
Big trucks blocking the road, creepy drivers with names like Troll or Goblin, and woods filled with booby traps await the entire Mayhem family this time around. That’s right, they have ended up in a rural horror show ala flicks like The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Evil Dead or novels such as Jack Ketchum’s Off Season as well as Richard Laymon’s nature walk through hell books like The Woods Are Dark, Dark Mountain or Darkness Tell Us. Or, I suppose, Cabin in the Woods, which played with some of these same self-referential concepts a decade or so after this book appeared.
In fact, it is the Laymon books, which seemed to have made a strong imprint on the material in this one. These people are sadists though (with one exception) generally less gleeful about their work than the gang of killers in Strand’s previous book Single White Psychopath Seeks Same. The real chilling creation for the book is the guy in charge of that group, a mysterious individual called Mr. Burke. You see, Goblin, Troll, Witch, Ogre and Ghoul are not necessarily interested in killing people. They are a delivery vehicle of fresh victims for Mr. Burke, who uses them like toys in his sadistic experiments.
Casket For Sale (Only Used Once) veers down some seriously dark roads indeed. For the first half, the book is a fun read about Andrew and company enduring adversity. This is good old rollercoaster ride stuff, particularly because their enemies are far more accustomed to innocents with no serial killer bashing experience. It is Goblin and the others who discover they are out of their depths. Not that Andrew, Helen, Theresa, Kyle, Roger and Samantha have an easy time of things. The plotting is pretty great, the action intense, the twists come along at just the right frantic speeds.
Then, somewhere around the midpoint, the book takes a turn. Mr. Burke enters the scene and the story veers down almost unbearable avenues in terms of its brutality. The book evokes a level of unease akin to Jack Ketchum’s The Girl Next Door. When I was a horror reader in my teens and twenties, I ate this kind of splatterpunk, disturbing material up. Over the years, my tolerance for grotesque bloodshed and pain has diminished, alas. This book gleefully veered into territory just past my current threshold. There are probably not enough trigger warnings in the world for this stretch. The book has torture, dismemberment, off-screen sexualized assault, children in serious peril and twisted deeds aplenty. These sequences are also played straight, which only lends them still more gravitas. Sensitive readers beware.
However, because of Strand’s clean prose and my eagerness to see my favorite characters triumph despite the terrible odds, I could not set the book aside. This turned out to be a good decision as the book once more shifts gear for its finale, back into lighter territory with a semi-tractor trailer loaded with corpses barreling down the highway and Andrew on a high-speed rescue mission.
While I am sure this book can stand well on its own, knowledge of the experiences the Mayhem family underwent in previous volumes enriches the characterizations and intensifies the emotional responses. The book is a full speed ahead horror thriller on its own. With the backstories, it only gets more intense.
While Jeff Strand established his ability for comedy and suspense in previous books, Casket For Sale (Only Used Once) is a showcase for how much his craft has improved. This book the best written of the first three. He does a good job blending the Mayhems’ real world problems with the shocking horror stuff. In fact, the book goes quite a ways to give readers a better, multi-dimensional view of all the characters in Andrew’s life. His wife Helen is far more complex than her husband gives her credit for, and is one of my favorite characters. His kids are more than setbacks and smart asses. Roger is more than The Good Friend (Often In Jeopardy). From a narrative perspective, the book is a marathon run, complete with heart and smiles and sorrow and chills. Unlike the previous works, this one indulges tragedy with unflinching honesty. It can go for the gross out, it can horrify, it can amuse and it can break a reader’s heart.
When I first reviewed this book fifteen years ago, I was not particularly convinced by it. Time and a closer reading has drastically changed my view. Back then, I could not buy Andrew as the action hero kind of guy. However, he has been showing some progress in this direction throughout his adventures. And this one kicks off with so many statements about Andrew’s manliness and masculinity that they called some serious attention to themselves. Since the narrative is delivered in first person, and since Jeff Strand is a careful, thoughtful author this is done for more reason than simply to show his readers how actually manly and masculine Andrew Mayhem. As we learn by the end of the book, this particular narrative is reactionary to its own darkness, a kind of post-traumatic stress coping mechanism for Andrew and Helen, the latter of which gets a few chapters from her own perspective the way Roger did in Single White Psychopath Seeks Same. The novel’s narrator is less reliable this time, a fact that seeps into the text in subtle and clever ways. Can we buy all the events? Maybe not. Can we enjoy the ride? For the most part. YMMV, of course, but there is that big stretch of harrowing material in the middle that smacked me on the nose pretty hard. Not just the torture stuff, either. There is an especially challenging bit when Andrew gets injected with a mystery drug that turns him into a crazy demon hunter who mistakes his wife and kids as demons in need of punishment.
Is Casket For Sale (Only Used Once) well written? Absolutely. Does the book deliver an intense horror-thriller ride? It does. Is the book good? Yes. Would I recommend it to every lover of horror fiction out there? Yes, so long as the reader knows ahead of time that it goes down some serious messed up avenues that could leave them a puddle of quivering jelly on the floor for a while. If you are okay with that, then have at it, friends!
The next stop in our little Jeff Strand reading series is the fourth book in the Andrew Mayhem series: Lost Homicidal Maniac (Answers to Shirley), which is available in an eBook edition. I have never read this one before. Looking forward to the kick in the butt to finally do so.
Strand, Jeff. Casket For Sale (Only Used Once). Mundania Press: 2004.
“Don’t Go In the Backwoods: Jeff Strand’s Casket For Sale (Only Used Once)” is copyright © 2020 by Daniel R. Robichaud. The cool Lynne Hansen cover is taken from the eBook edition released 2011. Quotes taken from the Mundania Press paperback, released 2005.
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