John Langan Reviews Paul Tremblay

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay (William Morrow 978-0-0623-6326-8, $25.99, 336pp, hc) June 2016.

Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, the gripping new novel from Paul Tremblay, begins with a phone call in the small hours of the morning. Elizabeth Sanderson, who answers the phone, has been waiting for a check-in from her son, thirteen-year-old Tommy, who is at a sleepover at a friend’s house. The phone’s trill fills her with instant dread. Midnight is long past and, Elizabeth thinks, no good news ever comes at this time. She is right: the call is from Tommy’s friend, Josh, at whose house Tommy is supposed to be staying. In short order, Josh admits that he, Tommy, and a third friend, Luis, snuck out to the local state park to drink beer, after which, Tommy took off on his own. He was not waiting for his friends when they returned to Josh’s house, so Josh is calling on the chance that Tommy went back to his own house. Although sure that her son’s room is empty, Elizabeth checks it, anyway. Tommy is not in it. In short order, she calls the police, and the search for her son is underway.

For about its first quarter, the novel concerns the attempt to locate the missing Tommy. Tremblay introduces a number of characters: Kate, Tommy’s younger sister; Josh, Luis, and their respective parents; Janice, Elizabeth’s mother; and Detective Allison Murtagh, the police officer in charge of the investigation into Tommy’s disappearance. Deftly moving from viewpoint to viewpoint, he details the development of the search as it expands throughout Borderland State Park. At the same time, a series of uncanny events lends Tommy’s vanishing supernatural overtones. Within her darkened room, Elizabeth has a terrible vision of her son dead, an experience so overpowering, she fears it is true. Shortly thereafter, she finds pages torn from one of Tommy’s notebooks in the middle of the living room. While Elizabeth and her mother, who has come to stay with her during this time of crisis, suspect Kate of having left them there, Tommy’s sister denies any involvement with them. Janice is unconvinced, but Elizabeth, her vision of her son fresh in her mind, is willing to suspend judgment. The notebook pages show a boy still wrestling with his father’s abandonment of the family and subsequent death in a drunk-driving accident, years before. They show Tommy deeply concerned, to the point of obsession, with what plan would succeed best in the event of a zombie uprising. They show Tommy deeply unhappy with the day-to-day pressures of seventh grade.

More pages from the notebook appear, and with them, the narrative undergoes a transformation. Tommy writes about encountering an older kid while he, Josh, and Luis were at the local 7-11. Arnold – at first, Tommy takes him for a high-schooler, then realizes he is older than that, though he’s not sure by how much – approaches the boys while they’re in the midst of discussing Minecraft and jumps into their conversation effortlessly, relating his experiences with the game with an exactitude that wins the boys’ trust. From the convenience store, Arnold takes the boys to Borderland Park, to the enormous cleft boulder known as Split Rock, whose proper name, he insists, should be Devil’s Rock. After supplying the boys with beer, he relates a story that explains his reasoning, a tale of an encounter with the Devil that seems to come straight from Hawthorne. He concludes his time with the boys by claiming to be mildly psychic, then demonstrating his ability on each of them. Tommy is especially moved by what Arnold reveals about him, and goes so far as to discuss his lost father with his friends, something he has not done before.

Whatever the immediate benefit of Tommy being able to speak about his father, Arnold’s ongoing influence on the boys is corrosive, corrupting, extending well beyond the beers he continues to give them. A gifted manipulator, he maneuvers Tommy, Josh, and Luis to an act that none of them can walk back from, and which sets them on a desperate path to escape his sway.

With his previous novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, Tremblay incorporated an extensive knowledge of horror fiction and film into his narrative through a series of blog posts by one of the characters. In Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, his references are no less extensive, but are fitted into the novel in a more low-key fashion. Laird Barron and Kelly Link are referenced through phrases drawn from titles of their stories. Arnold is a contemporary avatar of Arnold Friend, the antagonist of Joyce Carol Oates’s seminal ‘‘Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?’’ Several moments in the novel look towards the brilliant Australian film, Lake Mungo. Its allusions intersect one of the novel’s central concerns, namely the threats the world poses to the young, especially to those adolescents most vulnerable to the depredations of other, damaged figures.

Indeed, Tremblay’s general portrayal of character is one of the novel’s strengths. At least as far back as Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, moving forward through much of Stephen King’s best work, horror fiction has featured protagonists at or near adolescence. The field has also featured families under stress and threat. Tremblay mines both these veins with skill and compassion, creating a portrait of a small community that bears comparison with the best of Stewart O’Nan’s work. The novel begins with a statement, ‘‘Elizabeth is not dreaming,’’ which assumes more, and more awful, significance as it proceeds. It is Tremblay’s ability as a writer that renders the reality of his characters and their situations with such clear-eyed force. A Head Full of Ghosts was a tour de force. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is a heartbreaker.

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