Hug Chickenpenny: The Panegyric of an Anomalous Child by S. Craig Zahler

A newly arrived baby with a feral scream becomes the most abhorred — and the most unique — resident in a small orphanage with the very word “unwanted” in its title. And thus does tiny, misshapen Hug Chickenpenny begin his stay at the Johnstone’s Home for the Unwanted.

In this wonderfully macabre story by skilled writer S. Craig Zahler, the anomalous infant, terribly deformed at birth, and named  “Hug” by a doting caretaker, terrorizes the orphanage with his piteous demands for attention and hideous appearance.

Therefore, it is with a collective sigh of relief by all but the outnumbered caretaker, that Hug is soon adopted by the curious Dr. Chauncy Hartfordshire Hannersby — a teratologist of some repute.

What’s a teratologist? You’ll find out as you explore this terrific tale of the unfortunate baby who grows dutifully over the next four years into his destiny as Dr. Hannersby’s adopted son and acolyte.

Fate intervenes in the forest one day, however, as Hannersby and two other aging scientists ingest some not-so-mellow mushrooms. This forces Hug, as a displaced minor once again, to take up temporary residence back in the Johnstone’s Home for the Unwanted. It’s not a happy return.

The new headmistress is the former sullen receptionist, and she joins many of the normal children in making Hug feel the weight and scope of his deformities. Then, miraculously, salvation arrives in the form of another adoption — this one with a much better outcome. In fact, this placement leads to many unexpected — and unpredictable — adventures for Hug and an important new friend as he continues to grow up.

This absolutely unique book is part Cider House Rules and part Elephant Man, with a dash of The Hardy Boys thrown in for good measure. Again, it defies easy categorization.

Mostly, it’s just a superb story about surviving tall odds to ultimately triumph over unspeakable adversity — even if you’re riddled with deformities and periodically expectorate glittery vapor and brightly colored amethysts (outlandish as it seems, this makes perfect sense in the book, so skilled is the author at making the outre highly believable.)

Complex, well-drawn characterizations, compelling imagery and a well-ordered story arc complete a trifecta of literary accomplishment here that is achieved by few elsewhere.

Five-plus stars to Hug Chickenpenny. It takes the reader on a highly implausible — yet eminently readable — journey through an imaginative and poignant narrative that is well-told from beginning to its surprising end.

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