(2021) Clay McLeod Chapman, Quirk, pbk, 296pp, ISBN 978-1-683-69233-1
Chapman’s psychological thrillers are drawn directly from the headlines. Whispers is directly inspired by the Satanic panics of the 1980’s and 1990’s, especially the notorious McMartin preschool trial. There, a suspected child abuse incident initially reported in 1983, exploded into claims of teachers being embroiled in elaborate conspirational Satanic cults. Children ‘interviewed’ were given leading questions, hypnosis and intense interrogations by police and social workers. Claims of balloon flights, secret tunnels, teachers flying on broomsticks and other unrealistic claims failed to stop the trials going on until 1990, ruining many lives and failing to secure a single conviction.
Chapman’s fictional riff on the story centres on Sean, a pre-teen schoolboy who’s mischievous lies about a kindly teacher in 1983 erupt into hysteria as other children join in, with shades of Arthur Miller’s Salem Witch Trial drama, The Crucible (1953)
Then there is Richard, a teacher in 2013, finding mysterious events affecting his school. Someone slaughter’s a much loved mascot rabbit, and Richard finds himself haunted by memories of a child called Sean, and threats of revenge. The question becomes one of whether Richard is paranoid or someone is really out to get him, and if so, why?
There are no supernatural horror events in what is effectively a clever crime story set over thirty years. Sean’s story is given in the third person in the ‘Dammed if you do’ chapters, while Richard narrates his own story in the ‘Dammed if you don’t’ chapters. Sean’s story deals with the consequences of speaking out and saying too much, while Richard gets into more trouble for not seeking help or support but trying to keep the troubles erupting around himself quiet.
So much emphasise is given to the central characters of each of the time periods that Chapman rather forgets that the real events he draws energy from destroyed many lives. Though we are told that other kids and their families are affected (including other people around Richard), much of the focus is on these two characters to the exclusion of all else. This is particularly apparent in the dramatized transcript sequences relating to Sean’s interrogations. We know nothing of the cops and social workers pressing him to develop his claims, forcing him to elaborate embellish his simple lies into something far more deadly. Sean is not evil. He realizes his stories have got out of control, but fears the troubles he might face if he admits what he started. There ought to be more insights into the mindsets of Sean’s mother and Richard’s girlfriend, Tamara, among others), but Chapman makes Richard & Sean seem like microcosms around who little else matters. The horror of the real Satanic Scare cases (there were incidents in Rochdale and the Orkney Islands in the 80’s too), was that they swallowed in more and more people as they spiralled out of control. Chapman pushes such expansion into the background to centre on just a few people.
There are connections between the lives of Sean and Richard of course and the central twist is not difficult to spot well before Chapman reveals it. The finale becomes very tense and dramatic in both time periods and this is well worth a read, but rather a pale imitation of the real tragic events that inspired it, proving as ever that truth is stranger than fiction.
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