Death’s Head Press’s re-release of this 1977 novel by prolific author Charles Michael Platt comes with a certain level of expectation. It is an erotic crime thriller, being marketed to the extreme horror crowd in 2021 due to content. While Platt has a long list of sci-fi and non-fiction credits, his name may be most familiar to UK based horror fans as the author of The Gas, a book that was seized by order of the UK’s Director of Public Prosecutions upon publication in 1980 for being ‘transgressive’ and ‘pornographic’. While this isn’t the book I’m reviewing today, this fact certainly set the scene for what I’d let myself in for.
The book, broadly speaking, reads like a Richard Laymon take on Bonnie and Clyde, focusing on a chance meeting of an unemployed young man and an attractive and dangerous woman in a diner. From there the two go on a cross-country trip involving sexual exploration and devolving into murder, rape and kidnap in a journey destined to end in tragedy.
Set during a particularly volatile time in US history, a time of anti-war and anti-Government sentiment, and civil unrest, this book focuses on two lead characters who are very much embittered by both their lives and their country in general. Both are looking for a change and are afforded the opportunity when they meet unexpectedly and fall in love. He has dark fantasies that he has never considered making a reality and is almost given permission to do so by this woman, who freely admits to hurting and killing people in her past. She, in turn, sees this meeting as a sign that her current path is not one she wants to be part of anymore, and both serve as a catalyst for change for the other.
Your mileage with this book will depend on whether you make it past a particular scene early on. The kidnapping and rape of a woman the pair meet while driving cross-country makes for uncomfortable reading and the author doesn’t shy away from the act itself. I personally don’t believe anything should be considered too taboo, particularly in horror fiction, but something so emotive needs to be handled correctly and this leads into what was ultimately my major issue with this book.
Had the scene more relevance, or had the consequences or aftermath been handled differently, this could have been a challenging yet important part of the story. As it is, it felt more exploitative than it should, serving little more point than to say ‘these are bad people’. It was unnecessary in the context of the story and could have (and should have) been handled better.
This is a problem that pervades the entire book. It would be tough to argue against those who claim the story is little more than a literary male gaze fantasy. The lead female character has more page time dedicated to descriptions of, and mentions of, her breasts than she does any kind of character development, and the male lead gets no development at all, his thoughts and actions all being based around his sexual desire for her.
What makes this particularly frustrating is that the book itself is very well written and often hints at a number of intriguing directions the story could go. The power dynamic between the pair often shifts and had the novel developed into a more psychological look into this aspect, the story would have been far more interesting. The history of the period and general public apathy toward authority is sometimes mentioned but never explored. The book offers up so many genuinely fascinating directions it could go in, but never fully commits.
Sweet Evil is very well written and presents an intriguing set-up, which never quite delivers on its promise of being something more than the sum of its parts. Disappointingly, it feels like there is a truly great book in here somewhere, but there are just too many sacrifices to the story to allow it to be all it could be.