Sometimes a new book comes out of which the plot or theme feels unimportant or irrelevant. But sometimes global events happen at precisely the right time to provide the perfect context for a new book. Readers will then find themselves identifying with the characters more than usual and sense that the fiction is unexpectedly close to the facts. Yet, fiction it is. Greg Hickey’s latest novel, Parabellum, is in the latter category. It was published yesterday, on October 20, 2020. Initially, when I heard about it, my only connection was the name, Parabellum, which I immediately associated with John Wick: Chapter 3 – Parabellum. Hickey’s Parabellum also features guns, shooters, and killings, but from a different angle, namely mass shootings, a subject that is highly current and relevant. However, he approaches the subject in a way that you would not expect. There are no heroes here, no romanticized assassins. It is a bleakly realistic, chills-down-the-spine depiction of the events leading up to a fictional mass shooting in Chicago.
The reader starts out knowing that it is about a mass shooting and knowing that it will no doubt end very badly. And indeed, the first chapter starts with terror and violence. Some readers may stop right there after the first few pages, since the subject, while pertinent, is not for them. Why then continue to read it? Well, that is down to the high level of skill of this author. Once you get going, you just cannot stop. Hickey’s story pulls you into the characters’ deeply miserable lives, their mental processes and their increasing desperation, like you are being sucked down into a swamp.
A maturing author with elegant style
Hickey has published a screenplay, Vita, a novella, The Theory of Everything, and three novels. His previous novel was a game book (a choose-your-own-adventure for adults), The Friar’s Lantern, that I reviewed and found to be clever and unusual. Constructing The Friar’s Lantern, which is designed to offer the reader alternative story-lines, took considerable acumen. I thought Hickey was pretty good then. He has become even better. Parabellum reads like a novel by a mature author, ticking all the boxes for a chilling and pulse-racing psychological thriller.
There is nothing experimental about this – it is straight forward for the genre but, that being said, it is really well written. The language is flowing, restrained and elegant. The characters are fascinatingly detailed. The plot, depicting the lives of the four characters in the year leading up to the shooting, is expertly constructed, so that even the use of the characters’ names leads the reader step by step towards the inevitable climax. This is compelling writing. I was so drawn in that I read through the night to finish it. I was not deflated because I knew what was coming – I wanted to know which of the four characters had done it, and why. Particularly, why.
If The Friar’s Lantern had room for refinement, it was the characterization. It is set in court where a scientist is on trial for murder. Of necessity, the focus is on the sequence of events, reasoning, theories and choices that lead up to the court case. In Parabellum, there is no need for further work on the characters.
A psychological thriller
Hickey describes the characters so well that you can practically see them and hear them. He gets completely into the minds of four protagonists (yes, they are all protagonists, not antagonists) whose names are not revealed until near the end of the novel. Until then, they remain archetypes: the Army veteran, the ex-college athlete, the high school student, and the computer programmer.
He writes forensically about them – their histories, backgrounds, their current lives, what goes on in their heads, how they look, how they interact with others, their setbacks and their problems. He describes them in fine detail, like a psychologist would, and often he uses dialogues between these characters’ psychiatrists and therapists to expose the workings of their minds.
And my goodness, do they ever have problems! Each one of them has the potential to go over the edge and carry out a mass shooting. The interesting thing is that none of them “go crazy”, as you would expect. Even the final acts of violence are carried out calmly and determinedly. To them, their reasons and actions are normal and self-explanatory. The one who does the shooting thinks that they are the last logical human who is destined to make a point, and the world is a meaningless, faceless thing or target to be dealt with. If you ever wondered how come someone decides to kill an entire group of people who they don’t know from a bar of soap, you can find out at least some of the motivations in Parabellum.
The polished language of the novel made it possible for me to not get distracted by word choices or mistakes, and fully take in these people. That’s why I call them protagonists, not antagonists. If there is an antagonist in the story, it would perhaps be the institutions that cannot adequately help them and society that does not accept them. It would not be their families, who love them as best they can, but who cannot understand what is going on inside them.
Whereas one of them, who may be the killer, starts the novel with a diary entry that sets out why the world for them is just black and white, Hickey depicts even those with binary points of view as neither entirely good, nor entirely bad. They are sympathetic characters, and I thought, my word, how horrible it must be to have your thoughts stuck in this loop of doubts and questions.
Every section of the novel starts with an increasingly irrational argument by this unidentified first-person writer as the story progresses towards the climactic final event:
The reader knows, this is it – this is the one who tips over the edge and kills all those people at the beach. You spend the rest of the time wondering which of the four characters it is, and whether it is one of them. It’s a long, tense read to get to page 341, believe me.
“August 19 (376 days out)
Life is violence. Life is murder. It’s chaos. It’s 7.7 billion people and trillions of other life forms crammed together on a rock hurtling through a black abyss. Of course things are going to smash into each other. Go watch a YouTube video of a Serengeti river crossing. Or a bunch of Asians getting on and off a train. Don’t pretend life is a blissful Disney cartoon. You cannot live without taking life. Humans have killed each other for as long as they’ve existed. And we’re nothing special. All mammals kill their own kind. Not only predators. Monkeys have always killed other monkeys. And they do it a lot more often than humans. Same with meerkats and fucking chinchillas.
We like to think we’re evolved, but all that means is we’re the best version of monkeys. Modern society is the veneer over our basic animal instincts. Violence is in our DNA. Jungle law: every animal wants to survive. Does that mean every animal deserves to survive? Nature doesn’t give a damn about what anyone deserves. Fortune favors the bold; Nature favors the strong. It doesn’t care why you’re strong. It doesn’t care about luck or effort. It’s all binary. Strong or weak. Alive or dead.” (p. 20)
Hickey leads the reader into their minds, to understand the little things as well as the big problems that torture them. Sometimes I felt so sorry for them. I felt particularly sorry for the athlete who has these terrible headaches and losses of memory. Hickey’s detailed descriptions of the moves, the tactics, the sheer nastiness but also the sheer joy of competing are some of the most interesting parts of the novel. The computer programmer character seemed familiar because I have worked with that type of person in many tech companies. There’s something really off about that guy, I thought.
It occurred to me that surely there are people around me who are like this. One never sees the mental agony, one never knows who sits next to you on the bus, who queues behind you in the shop, who avoids you on the pavement. Who is about to lose it and do something awful. It is all really quite chilling. What do they say about mass murderers? Oh, they were so quiet, so nice.
Not quite the climax you were expecting
Just in case you were thinking it is a straightforward plot, from planning a mass shooting to executing a mass shooting, it is not. It is not a straight time line. There are many flashbacks to events in the characters’ lives which, in retrospect, should have acted as red flags for their later behaviour. They are all aware of mass shootings, bombings and terror attacks that have occurred in their lifetimes. The army veteran, for instance, experiences the loneliness, lostness and hallucinations triggered by continued Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) more than a decade after his deployment to Iraq and return to the U.S.
Nor is the pace of the development of the mental problems of these people the same for each one. Some, like the programmer, lead a seemingly normal life, except for those incidents not so long ago that may be indications that he has sociopathic or psychopathic tendencies. Another one, the athlete, suffers from Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and starts to lose her memory and control of her emotions when she is in her late teens. The student seemed to have been born with painful self-doubt and insecurity.
While all the characters have specific problems of which any may lead them to carry out a mass shooting, all of them seem to be at a desperate last stage in their mental problems. They are all at a life-or-death, make-or-break point. The reader doesn’t know which one will implode. Only that they all have access to guns, and that someone will. And as the chapter headings count down to “2 days out”, their thoughts get increasingly desperate and they have more uncontrollable outbursts.
Depicting irrational thoughts as if they were normal
The most interesting aspect for me is that Hickey managed to word their irrational thoughts in such a way that they sound almost normal. They believe they are normal, that they are right, that they are “great and pure” and that only they can help themselves. But something is definitely rotten in the state of Denmark, to misquote Shakespeare’s Hamlet. It takes skill to make these flawed arguments sound sane. It’s horrible, but it works.
“The misconception here is to believe that the ultimate goal of freedom is freedom from death, but that is not the case. Rather, the desire for freedom is a response to the certainty of death. One recognizes the necessary finitude, and thus, insignificance, of existence and sees that time is far too short for flattering and kowtowing in exchange for a piece of something when it is possible to seize the whole thing. To recognize the certainty of death is to acknowledge the absence of meaningful consequences and to explode forth without regard for injury to anyone. Only in this state can one be said to be truly free, and such freedom is the only logical response to death.” (p. 232 – 233)
As Darth Vader said, “The Force is strong with this one.” – Hickey’s voice can definitely be heard here, and his personal experience as an athlete and as a forensic scientist with the police show in the novel. There is a clinical quality to some of his descriptions. But seriously, I have written at length about the importance of authors’ backgrounds and research that allow them to present plausible and convincing worlds in their novels. I also said that, though fiction is fiction and any leaps of the imagination are to be expected, some novels, leaning towards factuality, make for a more engrossing and moving reading experience. Does the author have the credentials to have tackled the subject of their novel, or are they merely faking it? Knowing that an author writes from experience helps the reader suspend their disbelief and feel empathy for the characters.
The author explains
I was so surprised by the shocking and unexpected climax of the novel that I had to ask Greg Hickey about his creation process:
Questions from Seven Circumstances:
“All the time I was wondering, who will it be? That incident with the programmer cooking the coding on his client’s website was masterful. I used to work for tech companies and it all rang true. I knew people like him. I also wondered what had been going on in the mind of the author. What led to you writing this? How did you develop these psychological insights? (From your career in Forensics perhaps?) Was your creative process different from before?”
Answers from Greg Hickey:
“To answer some of your questions:
I decided to write Parabellum because I was personally baffled by the frequency of mass shootings in the United States. The Sandy Hook school shooting was the once that really got the wheels turning. I just couldn’t understand why anyone would do such a thing, and I felt compelled to grapple with all the issues at play.
A lot of the psychological insights stemmed from my personal experiences. For example, I was a college athlete, so I could imagine what the ex-athlete was going through when her sports career ended. I’m a little emotionally detached (which helps in a field like forensics where I can see some unpleasant things), so I could identify with the detachment of the programmer. I tried to take my experiences and push them a little farther to develop characters with more serious psychological issues. And I read several memoirs to get a sense of what it feels like to live with depression, PTSD, brain trauma, etc.
Yes, my creative process was very different than it was for my previous novels. I had an idea of how I wanted Parabellum to start and end and who the main characters would be. But I wanted the characters to develop organically instead of forcing them to fit into a predetermined plot. I did almost no outlining for this novel before I started to write. Instead, I focused on one character at a time and wrote scenes as they came to me. Once I had written a first draft of many scenes, I began to organize those scenes into a coherent order. As I went, I deleted scenes that didn’t fit and added new scenes when necessary.”
Ah, yes. He does indeed write from experience. He is a man of many faces.
This explains the occasionally clinical tone of the novel, though, for someone who calls himself “a little emotionally detached”, he sure has a knack for describing intensely emotional situations. Here is a moment in the life of the veteran:
“For twenty years, he had existed at moderate intensity. He had experienced hills of joy, mounds of contentment, dips of disappointment and gentle valleys of sorrow spread more or less evenly over time so that those slight changes in elevation faded to background noise when viewed at the appropriate scale. He had then crammed Everests of beauty and exhilaration and Marianas of agony and terror into the space of a few wartorn years, punching a hole through the relief map of his life.
He had seen fires caressing dusty buildings and returning them to the dust of a starkly beautiful landscape, stars shining in the desert night with the radiance of a million splintered suns, tracers zipping through the darkness like fireworks on crack. He had seen his enemies go down around him under the lighting that burst from his fingertip, the guts of children spilled out on sandy streets with mothers prostrate and wailing over them, his friends’ faces blasted and bloodied beyond recognition. What was civilian life but the quiet, empty comedown after an astronomical cocaine high?
However much he drank in the years that followed, he was never an alcoholic. He was addicted to a pure and visceral life he would never get back. The booze was only a symptom.” (pp. 183 – 184)
On his author’s profile on Amazon, and on his website, there are articles worth reading about what led to him to write Parabellum, for instance, on the definition of what evil is, and the psychology of people who do evil things. In the article, he discusses the possible reasons that people have for doing evil things, including being evil themselves, or getting a kick out of inflicting suffering, or wishing to end or destroy life. There are many more, but in Parabellum some of these are explored.
“In the end, Parabellum is not a solution to the problem of evil. It is merely my attempt to understand a little more about extreme wrongdoing and share my exploration with readers in the guise of a fictional story. I expect that, just as I did, readers will come away with more questions than they had before. But I hope they will also gain a fraction more insight into this problem and how they can address it in the real world. As [Hannah] Arendt and others have shown, the antidote to evil is goodness, but also, understanding.” (From Greg Hickey’s website)
It certainly raised many questions in my mind, Mr. Hickey.
I do really recommend Parabellum. Go read it. Think about it. Then, hopefully, you can, like me, breathe a deep sigh of relief that you and yours are OK, and go hug somebody you love and talk to them about stuff that matters. This is food for thought and not to be missed.