I have been told by the author to share that this is a book best avoided because of the suffering and pain it will cause. If, however, you are immune to danger and tantalized by fast food ghosts then I can only give my honest review of what I discovered in the pages of Daniel Kraus’ The Ghost That Ate Us. Perhaps then you will decide for yourself if it’s worth the risk.
Most of the time we associate hauntings with Victorian houses, abandoned asylums, or schools full of teen torment. As we’ve discovered with earlier jaunts like Grady Hendrix’s Horrorstör, nothing is worse than the specter of capitalism and how being a cog in the great wheel can feel a lot like suffering. The subtitle to this novel is “The Tragic True Story of the Burger City Poltergeist.” It’s from here that Kraus spins the main conceit of the story: this is fiction written as nonfiction. If you can’t quite tell the difference in the blur between reality and imagination then that seems intentional.
The narrator (a fictionalized Kraus) investigates, interviews, and idealizes Burger City #8 located in Jonny, Iowa—the site of a supposed poltergeist and later murders. He journeys around rural Iowa, a place he knows well enough, in a quest to discover what really caused the deaths of six innocent people. Throughout 2020, Kraus interviews the survivors of the Burger City tragedy and other folk for clues the documentaries and previous articles have missed. Their stories paint a haunting domino effect of superstition, unhealthy work conditions, and the long-lasting trauma such places can leave on people. Information about Iowa, current events, and the fast food industry is mixed into the narrative to build a complex understanding of the possibilities.
First, let’s discuss that nonfiction bent. For readers expecting straight-forward true crime, it may take a few pages (or chapters) to determine that this is, in fact, fictional. The tone and structure shapeshift from recovered audio/video, narration, interviews, descriptions of the past events, etc. It can be difficult to navigate some of these changes and stay aware of where and when you are in the telling, but it doesn’t take long to recalibrate. Many of the scenes feel like an episode of 20/20 or Ghost Adventures in how interviews are stitched together for multiple perspectives on the same event. The book includes pictures and footnotes as well. The footnotes delightfully help blur that line between reality and fiction since some of those sources actually exist and others don’t. Although justified in the end, the narrator leans more to bias than other nonfiction accounts would probably allow. Overall, the nonfictional, “based on a true story” angle works well for the novel.
One of my favorite elements is how rural Iowa and Burger City #8 come to life. The connection of unincorporated land, townships, and hamlets is reasonably clear, and the narrator includes the rough population of every place mentioned. This helps to emphasize the lonely, abandoned feeling of the general area, and also how effected such a spread of land can be by one event. Burger City #8 reminded me, in some ways, of the McDonald’s in Hawthorne, Nevada. Those fast food places that mostly are good for a quick stop on a long drive, a chance to use the restroom and stretch your legs, and a vague liminal quality to their existence. While others come and go, another population has to stay.
Through the 2020 interviews and the 2016-2017 narration, readers can more clearly see the changes between who these characters were before the tragedy and who they are now. The narrator is mostly fair in his attention and almost everyone gets a voice (even the dead). A killer is humanized by charm. A boss becomes a drinking buddy. A class clown shares somber secrets at midnight. A grieving daughter turns to the metaphysical. The narrator has this way of including small details—favorite authors, good deeds, late night habits—that make you mourn the ghosts of who these characters used to be. Even the Geezers, that perpetual group of elders who have their particular table, have enough development and wisdom to share in hindsight. Through the novel, readers come to know most of the crew of Burger City #8 and, by the time blood spills, the losses hit that much harder.
In addition to adding to the realism, the 2016-2017 and 2020 timelines and the inclusion of their events surprised me. However, it makes sense to escape into the supernatural when the natural is already horrific enough. The narrator doesn’t shy away from delving into the opioid epidemic and its effects on Iowa, the election of Donald Trump and its brand of conservatism, or the impact of COVID-19 in personal contact. After all, these are realities that the characters, fictional though they may be, would be contending with in their own lives. It creates a timely quality to the novel, although perhaps not timeless. Sometimes it was a bit jarring when masking or vaccination status were mentioned, but also very much of the moment. And—if we push a little more—the ongoing theme of skepticism vs belief can apply to all those events too (as well as the supernatural). Belief, it seems, can always be taken too far.
So, is the book scary? Perhaps not in ways you expect. I was reminded a bit of A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay as I was lead through the events before and after the Burger City tragedy. Many of the supposedly supernatural events in 2016-2017 are built-up by the characters and create a good sense of mystery and fun. The narration also writes from a perspective where you are aware of these things so what is or isn’t revealed at any given moment builds a nice amount of tension. By the time readers arrive at the climax, they’ve been slowly boiled like frogs and acclimated to certain levels of scares and violence. Then the revulsion and terror are dialed up to death. Some of it went a bit too far for me, but I was satisfied with how numerous plotlines were wrapped up prior to the addendum.
The addendum is both a necessary element to finish off the conceit of the novel and something that I struggled with. I would perhaps need to read the book again to properly buy into where it comes to with some of the characters and action. However, the tension and finale are understandable and good fun.
That said—without spoilers—the novel contains a thematically relevant use of body horror that also falls into a trope of horror. Some characters’ bodies are emaciated, and they are generally seen as “good guys” or “victims.” This is contrasted against the descriptive depictions of fat bodies. They are “evil” and repulsive. While it is indicated that unnatural weight loss and not being in control of your body is horrifying, this trope is one I’m tired of encountering. Again, it is relatively earned, but I know some readers are done with fat bodies being sources of horror rather than their actions. Additionally, I do wish there had been more development for the characters of color in the story. I’m glad they’re part of the crew and given some page space, but—compared to the white characters—I felt I didn’t get to know them as much and their endings hit different due to that.
Overall, this novel contains so much of what I enjoy in writing: a solid sense of place, complicated characters, an unstable sense of reality, and plenty of food. The nonfiction aspect could be a gimmick but is pulled off with enough deftness by Kraus. Even if readers start the novel looking for a comedic take on a fast food ghost, they will find something darker lurks in the meat of the story. I would recommend The Ghost That Ate Us to readers who were assigned Fast Food Nation or The Jungle while they were in school. I’d recommend it to anyone who works the same dead end job and wonders if they’ll ever escape. I’d recommend it to fans of found footage horror, ghost enthusiasts, and teenage pranksters. If you have a hunger for something frightfully fresh then order Daniel Kraus’ novel today.
This review is for an ARC copy received from Raw Dog Screaming Press through NetGalley. Thank you for the opportunity to read and review this work. The Ghost That Ate Us will be released on July 12, 2022.