While not a hands-down horror novel, Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child, has elements of horror within its pages. It’s the fifth book from S. Craig Zahler, novelist, screenwriter, cinematographer, musician, and the director of last year’s Bone Tomahawk (starring Kurt Russel) and the fresh-from-TIFF flick Brawl in Cell Block 99 (starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, and Don Johnson). He’ll also be going into production soon with Dragged Across Concrete (also starring Vince Vaughn, Jennifer Carpenter, and Don Johnson, plus Laurie Holden and Mel Gibson).

Hug Chickenpenny is reminiscent of A Series of Unfortunate Events, not in plot, but in tone. It takes place in its own time, and blends archaic terms with modern conveniences. It’s definitely not steampunk, but I imagined that it took place in the 1970s with Dickensian flavors scattered about — best of all it’s written well.Hug Chickenpenny is different from anything I’ve read — it’s certainly different from Zahler’s other work — and as someone who sees a lot of the same tropes consistently,Hug Chickenpenny is refreshing. I’ll add that if you like the YA gothiness of Tim Burton’s work, you’ll dig Hug Chickenpenny. In fact, if you have a child who shows interest in dark fantasy or horror, it would be a great addition to their library.

The novel follows the titular character from the very beginning. As an infant, he’s a monstrosity that tore through his mother, who bleeds out in an old, creepy mansion. He’s discovered by his mother’s best friend Abigail, who passes out from the sight of the gore and the screeching infant, who sounds and looks quite inhuman. Hug is deposited in the local orphanage, Johnstone’s Home for the Unwanted. With the exception of kindly caretaker Georgie, who takes pity on the deformed child and names him, Hug is taunted by kids and adults alike. This continues until an elderly doctor who specializes in oddities takes Hug in — more as a specimen and less as a son. It doesn’t take long until the doctor and several of his friends die from eating mushrooms thought to grant immortality, then Hug is back to the orphanage.

At this point, Abigail, who was scarred from discovering her dead best friend, along with infant Hug, reenters the picture and adopts Hug. The child has now developed an impressive vocabulary and a good set of manners, and is fond of drawing spaceships. Life brightens for Hug for awhile, as Abigail meets Sandy, another single parent with a son named Rex. Hug and Rex go on various adventures together, and unlike most children, Rex treats the anomalous Hug as a human being — and a real brother. The four of them become quite the happy family — until a moment of horror and tragic downturn leads to a very sad, touching ending. I have to admit that I was caught off guard by my reaction to the moving last chapter. For that reason alone, I cannot recommend this book enough — for both kids and adults.