The titular child of S. Craig Zahler’s Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child is a boldly conceived, cinematic protagonist. The boy, whose mother died giving birth to him and whose father is unknown, has pink skin with white patches. The inside of his mouth is purple and fanged. White hair sprouts from his lumpy, venous scalp, and his crenulated spine clicks as he slithers. His right leg is undersized yet functional; the left is curved and weak. His right arm ends in four fingers, and his left is a stump with one thumb. He has one brown eye and one red eye; they blink independently of each other. Instead of a nose, he has two slits that whistle. His cry, Zahler writes, is “the most horrible sound that [has] ever been produced by a human being.”
It makes sense that Zahler's latest novel, out Sept. 12 via the Dallas-based media company Cinestate, is the first book on Cinestate’s inaugural publishing slate. A Dickensian fable with elements of gothic horror and Christian apologia, Hug Chickenpenny has the makings of an interesting genre film, which Cinestate is likely to produce as well.
Moreover, Zahler is a prolific asset to the 1-year-old company. An accomplished screenwriter, director, cinematographer, musician and novelist, Zahler has worked with Cinestate CEO and indie film producer Dallas Sonnier on three features that Zahler wrote and directed in as many years: the 2015 horror Western Bone Tomahawk, the forthcoming action thriller Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete, which is in production and stars Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn as police officers accused of brutality.
Hug Chickenpenny, although a slight departure from the bloodier neo-noirs that compose Zahler’s work, is in keeping with the author’s grisly aesthetic and Cinestate’s multipronged mission, which includes publishing diverse genre fiction and producing complex genre films. Like Tim Burton’s Edward Scissorhands and David Lynch’s Elephant Man, the appeal of Zahler’s hero is his extreme duality: a monstrous form encapsulating a sweet, innocent soul.
However, Hug's potential as a cinematic character outstrips the book’s plot, which is thin and meandering, and overshadows the other characters, who range from flimsy to cartoonish. Hug's personality, which is heavily reliant on precociousness, messianic morality, and the catchphrases "darn it" and "double darn," also leaves much to be desired.
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Set in an unspecified time and place, Hug’s story is a hodgepodge of familiar tropes: part fish-out-of-water fantasy, part morality play, part coming-of-age weepie reminiscent of the film Simon Birch. Besides Hug, the main characters are Abigail Westinghouse, the best friend of Hug’s late mother and a recovering alcoholic who deposits Hug in an orphanage after birth; George Doggett, a Christian caretaker at the orphanage who gives Hug his name and protects him from the implausibly nasty receptionist, Jennifer Kimberly; and Doctor Hannserby, an elderly teratologist who adopts Hug as both pet and project.
Ostensibly, the reader is supposed to like George, even though he is pretentious and self-righteous, and names an Asian baby Egg Roll; have mixed feelings about Abigail and Doctor Hannserby, sinners who nonetheless seem to feel guilty for their selfish behavior; and hate Jennifer, a cartoon villain with no motivation or backstory to render her convincing. And while clearly a victim of tragic circumstances, Hug is too conceptually intriguing to be so passive in his story, too often watching or allowing events to occur rather than taking charge and directing the course of them.
Overuse of passive voice, some awkward phrasing and superfluous detail — writing out all the steps of a character leaving his car and walking to a door, for example — also bog down the narrative. A mawkish ending, although fitting for a parable about unconditional love, doesn't feel earned, much less feasible.
Still, in spite of its flaws, Hug Chickenpenny is a daring, evocative work that defies categorization. And with some character and plot development kinks worked out, it could be a great film, too.