I enjoy Supernatural tie-in novels regardless of the setting, monster or plot simply because it’s additional time I get to spend with Sam and Dean Winchester. I was particularly excited about The Usual Sacrifices because it’s set in Kentucky cave country. Living in the Midwest my whole life, I have visited several of the distinctive caves in that area during vacations. Just this past week, I was within a few miles of Marengo Cave.
My most vivid memories are of seeing Mammoth Cave for the first time. The scale of the cave is indescribable, with wondrous and breathtaking but eerily haunting geology that makes up its ancient natural formations. One of the unparalleled experiences of my time in the cave was having the tour guide take a group of us into a cavern that was fairly large, then turn off all the cave’s lights, plunging us into complete darkness. I will never forget the unequaled blackness of that moment. I couldn’t see anything – not the cave, or the guide, or even my hand held immediately in front of my own face. I knew there were people all around me, but I literally couldn’t see anything. I felt utterly alone in the universe, and almost immediately terrified by the isolation. Even on the darkest of nights out in the most remote areas of land, there is always light, from the ambient reflection of distant civilization or from the moon and stars. This was absolute nothingness. I also remember the damp chill of the cave rocks and the moisture that was constantly gathering on the cave floor. Add to that the claustrophobia (which is not usually a problem for me) of knowing the weight of solid rock and earth above, and the whole experience was as unnerving as it was beautiful.
So I could truly appreciate The Usual Sacrifice’s detailed descriptions of Sam and Dean’s fears while wandering into the deepest caverns of the cave. I could easily visualize the tunnels that they had to traverse by shimmying on their stomachs in a single file, with only their helmet lights piercing the blackness, constantly under threat of being lost or buried alive. Since the entire environment is made up of sights, sounds, surfaces, smells and colors literally of another world, it’s easy to believe that it would also harbor creatures that aren’t of this world. The perfect horror scenario.
The story had both real and supernatural components, which was perfect for a Supernatural plot. There was a touch of romance too, which was nice. Sam and Dean remained true to their characters, so the story flowed well without distracting missteps of depiction or canon. A few tense moments allowed for suspense, drama and heroism. I also greatly appreciated that the scenes that could have been horrifically gross or terrifying were toned down enough for the weak of heart (e.g. me). I was able to read the book in bed at night without it keeping me awake for hours worrying about the 3 a.m. boogeyman (who always comes at 3 a.m. in my afraid-of-the-dark scenarios! Blame Dark Shadows.)
Two aspects of the book took away from its enjoyment. First, the villain of the plot (who I won’t name so as to not spoil the story for you) was a bit too amoral to be believable. His/her motivations were explained, but I just didn’t buy the scenario in a real town. Considering the setting was very real, I felt the people within the story also needed to behave in a way that I could easily transpose into a town I had probably driven through several times in my lifetime. Secondly, the descriptions of the local people and their homes, backgrounds, personalities, emotions, etc. were entirely too detailed. They went on for pages and pages repeatedly throughout the book. While they were all very well written and would probably have added a great deal to a stand-alone story, I was only reading the book for Sam and Dean. I simply didn’t care that much about anyone else! I like tie-in novels to be something like 70% Supernatural characters and only 30% disposable characters. I don’t know what the breakdown of this book was by actual page count but it felt like 50/50. The standards by which I judge a tie-in novel are simply different than my criteria for other fiction. Reading about Sam or Dean brushing their teeth is more interesting to me than a full chapter about some poor victim’s life before they were tragically murdered. I’m biased that way.
Bottom line: Read The Usual Sacrifices because it will add another adventure to our boys’ long story arc, but maybe skip the pages that bore you. They aren’t relevant in the long run.