DISAPPEARANCE AT DEVIL’S ROCK Review: Paul Tremblay Does It Again
Paul Tremblay's A Head Full of Ghosts wasn't only my favorite horror novel of 2015 - it was one of my favorite books of the year, period. His followup, Disappearance at Devil's Rock, hits shelves today (get it at the link below), and you'll find that, though a very different book from A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil's Rock is every ounce as vital and inventive. And it's absolutely as urgent: as with A Head Full of Ghosts, I had to read Disappearance at Devil's Rock until I'd reached the end. I kept myself up at night, I balanced the book next to my plate so I could turn pages while eating, I read as I crossed the street. This book could have killed me, through my own sheer negligence of my surroundings. Nothing was as important as making it to the end of Tommy's story.
Disappearance at Devil's Rock opens with a desperation unusual for first chapters: Elizabeth Sanderson wakes to a phone call.
No good news ever calls after midnight. Elizabeth knows this from personal experience. Instead of wading into the swelling sea of the blackest what-ifs, she dares to think that maybe the call is a wrong number, or a prank, and Tommy just forgot to text her, and she'll yell at him tomorrow about his selfish forgetfulness. Getting mad is better than the alternative. There are other maybes, of course. There will be thousands more.
Tommy is Elizabeth's son, and the phone call is from his friend Josh. Tommy and their friend Luis stayed the night at Josh's house, as they have many times before, and the three thirteen-year-old boys sneaked off into the woods, to an enormous, misshapen boulder called Split Rock, or Devil's Rock. They'd spent much of their summer at Split Rock, lightly misbehaving, until they met an older boy, and their small, childish secrets began to grow bigger and darker. The book takes place in present tense, as Elizabeth, her mother and her daughter Kate, a few years younger than Tommy, suffer through the search for the missing boy. It follows the detective assigned to the case, Allison, and it also follows Josh and Luis, as they deal with the grief and guilt of being Tommy's friends and knowing Tommy's secrets, of being the ones who remain after he disappeared. And it also jumps back a few months to follow Tommy, through his journal, as he discovers Split Rock, the biblical landmark where he lost his innocence and became a boy with two lives: the one he lived with Elizabeth and Kate and his classmates, and the one that exists in the pages of his journal and behind the shadow of Devil's Rock.
We are given such insight into these characters, each changing perspective as compelling and believable as the last. Tommy and Kate's father left them when they were young, and his absence affects them in different ways. Tommy feels this lack deeply, shadowing every decision he makes, while Kate works furiously to be normal. Especially now, with her older brother gone and her mother in pieces, Kate tries, constantly tries, to be enough.
In the flashback scenes of Tommy's journal or Josh or Luis' memories, we see these three boys playing together in a way that feels entirely real. There's something of Stand By Me or "The Body" here - these three boys have their own slang ("Chirps," "hardo") and share a very present acknowledgement of real pop culture, an aspect Disappearance shares with Head Full of Ghosts ("Don't taze me, bro!"). Another is the strength and heart of the relationship between Kate and Tommy - though we never see these siblings in a scene together, Kate's memories and Tommy's journal sustain the bond between brother and sister, bringing them nearly as close to one another as physical proximity could do. Tommy's journal is written with Kate as the intended audience, despite multiple threats against just such an eventuality. His journal is the perfect representation of a new teenager, struggling to find his voice:
Writing kinda sucks. Why does anyone write in a diary? Who are they writing for? You write something down because you want someone to read it, right? Diary writers must imagine some sort of reader. Yeah? Why do it if no one is going to read it even though all diaries say that you’re not supposed to read any of it. I think a diary is like a dare.
I dare ya to read this!! Kate,
I’m really not daring you to read this. So stop.
Elizabeth's grief is a megalith as heavy and unavoidable as Devil's Rock. She volleys between listless indecision and frenzied activity, giving everything she has to survive this ordeal and care for her daughter, but everything she has is being whittled away every day that Tommy doesn't reappear. In one terribly credible scene, Elizabeth, her mother and Kate sit in silence at a table littered with Chinese food containers:
They don’t talk. Their silence isn’t the awkward eggshell of a group afraid to say the wrong thing. Their silence is commiserative, as though they are factory workers having earned each other’s company after completing their most recent, endless shift. The hot mustard packs and fortune cookies go untouched, and Elizabeth throws them away.
Elizabeth is burdened with more than her own grief: she is either the victim of the supernatural or the breakdown of her mental faculties, and she despairs because she can't discern between the two possibilities. She sees Tommy, she smells him. She finds his journal pages strewn across the living room floor after everyone else is asleep. Is this his spirit, guiding her to him? Is it her own deep yearning made manifest in crumpled pieces of notebook paper, revealing a clearer insight into her son than she was ever given when he was under her roof?
Disappearance at Devil's Rock is many things: a heartbreaking examination of a grieving family, an unblinking look at childhood lost. It's beautiful, and it's very scary, and it will stay with you. Read it.