Written by Kristopher Rufty
Published by Sinister Grin Press
Jagger is the kind of book that horror presses should publish more of. There seems to be a march toward shorter novellas, or at least an emphasis placed on books that “move” (the ones that sprint to the “good stuff”). The old man in me doesn’t care much for this trend, and I’m happy to say that Kristopher Rufty’s Jagger is exactly the kind of book I love.
It’s a story that builds gradually toward the carnage, earning the violence and horror while understanding that character remains king. It gives us plenty of opportunity to get to know our cast before plunging them headlong into a bleak scenario that shakes the animal lover in each of us.
Comparisons to Cujo are inevitable. I know it, Rufty knows it, and I’m certain that his publisher, Sinister Grin Press, saw it coming too. When I tweeted the cover a few weeks back, several comments drew that conclusion. There have been killer dog novels between Cujo and Jagger, but I think that social media response perfectly illustrates why the market can stand a few more entries into this subgenre—we’ve still got Cujo on the brain! People still write about serial killers even though we’ve had Red Dragon and the rest of the Lecter novels, so why should canine horror end with a book from 1981?
I’m not going to compare Rufty’s novel to King’s, except to say both books do an admirable job of setting the stage quite well before the bloodshed kicks in. The measured pace of Jagger is a nice change in an age where genre books feel compelled to hit the ground running and never, ever stop. Yes, we have a pretty good idea of where Jagger is headed from the beginning, but that doesn’t stifle our enjoyment of Rufty’s characters any less.
Just north of 330 words, Jagger spends a good chunk of time on setup, and it’s a very good move. The first 100 pages are devoted to character development, acclimating us to the lives of our key players, while threading a sense of significant community history throughout the chapters. Our protagonist, Amy, is sympathetic and likable from the first words. She’s struggling to play the hand she was dealt as the owner/manager of an inherited trailer park community that has seen better days. Her best, most trusted friend is a gigantic bullmastiff named Jagger.
Amy’s friend, Teresa, doesn’t make the best choices. Teresa has an on again, off again relationship with Clayton, a grimy loser who makes money training dogs to fight. When his dog dies during a recent match, Clayton owes a lot of money to some low-tier slezeballs. Teresa and Clayton steal Jagger out of desperation, and the dog is injected with mysterious drugs to make him a more formidable fighter. The dog loses his mind and cuts a bloody swath all the way back to Amy, whom he might blame for his misfortunes.
Rufty knows how to manage the dog attacks in brutal, uncomfortable ways. Some of this is probably what I brought to the book, as my wife’s family has a bullmastiff that happens to be the sweetest dog ever. I couldn’t help but picture him as I read Jagger. My skin crawled throughout his mistreatment, and more so at his bloody, tragic vengeance.
We find some satisfaction in the way Jagger kills some of his more deserving victims, but Rufty is to be commended for fleshing out all his characters. In the hands of a lesser storyteller, a character like Clayton would be one-dimensional garbage, but there’s a sense of conflict within him that makes him interesting, and even a tiny bit sympathetic. I like that Rufty avoids writing about his villains with disdain. Yes, there are bad people in here, but he tells their stories with as much balance as possible, giving the book a welcome sense of heft.
I think stories like Jagger work best when unfolding at a slower pace. A novel isn’t a movie, and I’m sometimes confounded by an author’s (or publisher’s) decision to turn a book into the equivalent of an 80-minute b-movie. Sure, it’s a matter of preference, but when I’m going to invest myself in an author’s world, I like to live inside of it for a little while. Jagger trades between five or six characters, but I was never bored of any of them.
Rufty doesn’t shy away from the goods, either, so gorehounds can go ahead and pick this one up knowing there’s enough sex and violence to satisfy those cravings. I admire the ways in which Rufty depicts those events without any kind of redundancy. But there’s also a beautiful kind of poetry in his violence, as glimpsed here:
Nathan’s screams tore through the tranquility of the day, stopping the breeze, killing the sounds of birds and distant audible noise.
Grisly and chilling, Jagger is exactly what I’m looking for when I curl up with a modern horror novel. Old school in spirit, but carried out in a modern voice, I absolutely loved the ride. I saw my family’s bullmastiff a few days after finishing this and gave him a few extra scratches on the belly. Jagger is just a story, but it’s stayed with me since finishing it.
Note: I also love the book’s design. Sinister Grin Press is becoming one of my favorite sources for modern horror, and the whole package is great, from the cover art to the catchy blurb, and even the numbered spine, which should make any collector want to grab the rest of these books. I’m hoping they’ll publish one of mine someday!