(2021) Clay McLeod Chapman, Quirk Books, pbk, 296pp, ISBN: 978-1-683-69233-1
In this psychological thriller Richard is an Art teacher in the quiet town of Danvers, Virginia. He is recently married to fellow teacher Tamara, and as a result has taken on the responsibility of fatherhood to young Eli. At the beginning of the book all seems good, and life is full of potential.
So far this all sounds rather Stephen King-like in the authorís depiction of small-town America. Itís quiet and generally pretty calm, a great place to live and bring up a family, with a great and close-knit community.
In alternate chapters we also find the story of Sean from 1982-'83, a five-year-old single child of a single-parent mother, who seems to move from place to place as his mother moves from job to job. Initially the two stories of Richard and Sean run parallel to each other and seem disconnected.
As the book progresses, though, we realise that Sean has had a change of identity. Back in 1982 he was coerced into making up a lie that Mister Woodhouse, his favourite teacher, had given him bruises rather than the real culprit, the school bully.
The fall-out of this is considerable. Sean is unable to tell others that he made the lie up, and continues to tell more lies to cover himself. The incident gains national interest. Sean likes the attention and the fact that people are listening to what he has to say, even when things seem to go badly wrong and much bigger than he ever would have imagined. This eventually leads to Sean being given a new identity with foster parents. By 2013 it is almost as if Sean never existed.
The ongoing tension of the novel is created when horrific ritualistic animal killings in 2013 begin to happen at Richardís school Ė and that events of the past are starting to repeat themselves.
Much of the latter part of the book is focussed on Richardís perspective, and so has an emphasis on the psychological aspects of the case rather than any witchcraft or magic. There is an ongoing sense that Richard may be sub-consciously be involved in the killings, and as they escalate, he may be involved in worse things to come. He becomes more paranoid and secretive, and the author does well to describe events through Richard in such a way that the reader is often unsure whether it is Richardís own actions that are causing the trauma or something (or someone) else? The reader is kept guessing for much of the book, and Clay manages to build up suspense nicely throughout.
What also worked for me was the different voices given to both Sean and Richard. Whilst Richardís is admittedly mainly through a first-person narrative, Seanís is also subtly effective, showing the reader indirectly how easy it is for a young child to be manipulated and swept along by things outside of his or her understanding.
By examining such aspects of modern life, the book also manages to put under the spotlight the sometimes grubby nature of aspects of modern life. Although you donít need to know this to appreciate the story, the novel is evidently based on true events in the USA in the 1980ís. (Thereís a useful list of background material given at the end of the novel to show this, too.) A case known as the ďSatanic PanicĒ led to the rising up of a moral minority who felt that their lifestyle was under threat by covert Satanism across America and that it was the pillars of society such as the school-teachers that were to blame.
This novel shows how easy it is for paranoia and mistrust to spread in a society and how difficult it is for such things to be disproved, once raised. Lovely neighbours suddenly become snarling protesters once they feel that their homes, lives and family are in danger, quick to anger and to judge, and this aspect of suburban lifestyle is shown effectively, although the author is clear not to make it obvious whether this is actually happening or whether it is Richardís crumbling perception that is interpreting things this way.
The book deals with the nature of what is truth, the innocence of children, the basic human need for attention, the reliability of memory and oddly, forgiveness. The issues raised are not new, but they are still depressingly relevant. Could such events happen here, today? This book makes it seem possible.
Of course, most of the plot is resolved at the end. Thereís a couple of nice little twists towards the end that I didnít see coming, which is always a good sign to me. All in all, this was a good creepy tale that kept my attention throughout.
See also Arthur's take on Whisper Down the Lane.
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