Disappearance at Devil’s Rock (2016)
Written by: Paul Tremblay
Pages: 327 (Hardback)
Publisher: William Morrow
Why I Chose It: People have been recommending Paul Tremblay to me ever since his book, A Head Full of Ghosts, came out in 2015. The editor of Speculative Chic, Shara White, who is one of my go-to people for reading recommendations, told me it was the best book she read all year. I finally read it at the end of last year. The book is told from the point-of-a-view of a young girl whose older sister is either experiencing severe mental illness or a demonic possession. The desperate and cash-strapped parents allow a reality TV show to film their daughter’s exorcism. I found the book’s ending frustrating but it was clear that Tremblay is a talented writer and a master of suspense. When Speculative Chic asked for people willing to review the nominees for the Bram Stoker Awards, I knew I had to immediately stake a claim on Tremblay’s newest book.
A family is shaken to its core after the mysterious disappearance of a teenage boy in this eerie tale, a blend of literary fiction, psychological suspense, and supernatural horror from the author of A Head Full of Ghosts.
“A Head Full of Ghosts scared the living hell out of me, and I’m pretty hard to scare,” raved Stephen King about Paul Tremblay’s previous novel. Now, Tremblay returns with another disturbing tale sure to unsettle readers.
Late one summer night, Elizabeth Sanderson receives the devastating news that every mother fears: her thirteen-year-old son, Tommy, has vanished without a trace in the woods of a local park.
The search isn’t yielding any answers, and Elizabeth and her young daughter, Kate, struggle to comprehend Tommy’s disappearance. Feeling helpless and alone, their sorrow is compounded by anger and frustration: the local and state police have uncovered no leads. Josh and Luis, the friends who were the last to see Tommy before he vanished, may not be telling the whole truth about that night in Borderland State Park, when they were supposedly hanging out a landmark the local teens have renamed Devil’s Rock.
Living in an all-too-real nightmare, riddled with worry, pain, and guilt, Elizabeth is wholly unprepared for the strange series of events that follow. She believes a ghostly shadow of Tommy materializes in her bedroom, while Kate and other local residents claim to see a shadow peering through their windows in the dead of night. Then, random pages torn from Tommy’s journal begin to mysteriously appear — entries that reveal an introverted teenager obsessed with the phantasmagoric; the loss of his father, killed in a drunk-driving accident a decade earlier; a folktale involving the devil and the woods of Borderland; and a horrific incident that Tommy believed connects them.
As the search grows more desperate, and the implications of what happened become more haunting and sinister, no one is prepared for the shocking truth about that night and Tommy’s disappearance at Devil’s Rock.
Discussion: This book could have easily been forgettable and unoriginal because the drama of a missing person is well-trod territory in both horror and non-speculative fiction. Even the Devil’s Rock itself was a cliché danger zone since every town in America has one. Near my hometown, there is a field of boulders known as the Devil’s Marbleyard. In Tremblay’s capable hands, this familiar story is made new and terrifying again. The book also includes elements of a detective story as Elizabeth, Tommy’s mother, pieces together a portrait of Tommy from his diary and friends.
All stories about missing children are always billed as, “Every parent’s worst nightmare,” but Elizabeth is more richly drawn and complex character than a mere stereotype of a hysterical mother. As the reader, you can feel her barely hanging on by the tips of her fingers and it’s terrible. She is frightened, angry, and losing her grip on reality. At times, Elizabeth completely freaks out on Janice, her mother, and Kate, her eleven-year-old daughter. Kate’s childish attempts to fix things and make her mother happy again, and Janice’s struggle to keep the peace also feel realistic. You wonder if the family will survive Tommy’s disappearance.
The story becomes even sadder when you learn that this is the second catastrophe that this family has had to endure. William, the children’s father, died in a car accident after abandoning his family. Elizabeth “once told Kate when she was struggling in the third grade (and being bullied by some piece-of-shit boy who no longer lived in Ames) that her ghost-dad was there, watching and secretly loving and caring for her, which was more than the live one ever did” (p.32). I caught myself thinking, “Everything will turn out all right because surely this family has suffered enough tragedy.”
It was an interesting choice to make Tommy thirteen-years-old because he is not as completely innocent as a younger child yet he is not as mature and capable as an adult or even an older teenager. Tommy loves the Minecraft video game and talking about the zombie apocalypse but he has also starting sneaking out and drinking beer. It gradually becomes clear that Tommy’s desire to look cool in front of his friends and lifelong longing for his father has left him incredibly vulnerable and prone to making bad decisions. There were times during the flashback scenes that I wanted to scream, “What are you thinking?” at Tommy. I don’t even have children but I still felt the urge to yell at Tommy, to ground him, to somehow stop him before things went too far. It’s not often that a horror book provokes such an emotional reaction from me. You also wonder if Tommy’s friends are holding back because they’re kids who are afraid of getting in trouble or if there is something more sinister going on.
Tremblay also briefly addresses the vicious way that the media turns missing person cases into entertainment. Elizabeth watches in horror as talking heads on Fox News savage Tommy’s broken home, underage drinking, and fascination with zombies and the occult. “It’s as though Tommy’s disappearance has become a national Rorschach test; they blurt out whatever it is they think they see in the chaotic inkblot. They do not ever refer to Tommy as someone who needs help…” (p.224). It’s appalling and enraging to watch the media blame Tommy for his own disappearance, especially since the scene is from the point of view of his mother.
In conclusion: Don’t start reading this book if you have somewhere to be or something to do. I planned to make the book last the entire weekend but instead I read it in one frantic gulp on Friday evening. Not having read any of the other nominees for the Bram Stoker Award, I can’t say for sure that Disappearance at Devil’s Rock should win, but it would not shock me at all if Paul Tremblay wins back-to-back, having won “Superior Achievement in a Novel” for Head Full of Ghosts in 2015. Head Full of Ghosts is the more innovative and unique novel, but I liked Disappearance at Devil’s Rock better and it had a more satisfying resolution.
Tremblay excels in creating edge-of-your-seat, white-knuckled psychological suspense. Usually, you know if the supernatural is real or not in a particular book’s universe, as in “Okay, werewolves do exist” or “No, it was definitely a person who killed all those cheerleaders,” but Tremblay keeps you in the dark along with his characters. I have read multiple books by Stephen King’s son, Joe Hill, but if there is an heir to the crown of “King of Horror,” it is Paul Tremblay. He rivals King in his ability to find terror in the mundane. Before I read this book, I would have never thought that a drawing in a teenaged boy’s journal could be hauntingly frightening. Thanks to Tremblay, now I know better.