"Disappearance at Devil's Rock" Book Review
Written by Gabino Iglesias
Published by William Morrow
Written by Paul Tremblay
2016, 336 pages, Fiction
Released on June 21st, 2016
If you read horror fiction, chances are Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts already blew your mind. The novel, which came out in June of 2015, showed up in every best of the year list and earned the author a Bram Stoker Award. The narrative is smart, creepy, and presents a unique, almost academically deconstructive look at the genre it belongs to (and does so despite also being a thriller). Now, merely a year later, Tremblay’s new novel, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, is here. To be honest, I approached it with equal amounts of excitement and trepidation. On one hand, this was a new novel by one of the best horror novelists in the game and an incredibly talented author whose work I’ve been a fan of since The Little Sleep, which was released in 2009. On the other hand, how could we expect him to surpass A Head Full of Ghosts? Three chapters into it, I was sure of two things: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock was an entirely different animal and it matched, if not slightly exceeded, the greatness of its predecessor.
Elizabeth Sanderson knows pain. She’s the mother of two kids who have already dealt with the abandonment and subsequent death of their father. Unfortunately, things are about to get worse. Late at night, she receives shattering news: Tommy, her thirteen-year-old son, has disappeared without a trace while hanging out with some friends in the woods of a local park. The authorities are called and the search for the lost teenager begins, but the fruitless results of the first day stretch over the first week. Meanwhile, Elizabeth, her mother, and her young daughter, Kate, struggle to comprehend Tommy’s disappearance. Between their confusion and frustration, mainstream media, social networking sites, and the feelings they have toward Josh and Luis, the friends who were with Tommy when he vanished, the three women coexist in a cocoon of tension, anger, and guilt. To make things worse, the authorities keep coming up empty in terms of leads. Then things change. Elizabeth sees a ghostly shadow in a corner and she’s sure it’s Tommy. There are rumors of people seeing strange things through their windows and it turns out that Josh and Luis did not give the investigators all the information they had. Finally, random pages torn from Tommy’s journal begin to appear mysteriously in the house, and the words they contain throw an even darker shadow over the teenager’s disappearance. What follows is a haunting, heartbreaking tale of loss, mystery, the meaning of family, and the way truth, fear, violence, and insanity can come together in deadly ways.
Reading Disappearance at Devil’s Rock was great because it cemented something I believed after finishing Tremblay's previous effort: he is a master storyteller whose most impressive strength is placing the reader in an interstitial space between anxiety and uncertainty. Reading this novel is entering a world in which there are too many hints, ghosts, and questions, but not nearly enough answers. Elizabeth and Kate are thrown into chaos and the only things they have to hold on to are coated in a thick layer of improbability, and the reader goes along for that scary, emotionally exhausting ride.
Tremblay does many things well here, but three of them deserve special attention. The first is pace. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock flows like a river: some parts are peaceful and allow you to take in a lot of details while others rush forward with the power and violence of whitewater rapids and force you to hold on for dear life. This flow makes for a novel with great tense moments and some spaces to breathe.
The second element that shines is the dialogue. The emotionally charged explosions at home, the talks with the detective leading the case, and the passages in which Tommy and his friends are together are all different, but the author manages to make the most out of them and to use them to enrich the narrative every time, dropping hints and revealing chunks of truth without giving too much away and building on the mystery that starts in the first chapter.
Last but not least is the mediated horror that comes from a camera Elizabeth buys in order to figure out how the pages from Tommy’s journal are showing up. For fans of horror, these passages are exactly what a great found-footage film should deliver, and what they almost always fail to accomplish. As a bonus, the reader sees the pages the way Tommy wrote them, which adds a level of creepiness to the narrative.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock bridges the gap between crime and horror beautifully. Tremblay weaves a police procedural into this narrative and the last third of the novel contains writing that could easily be found in a hardcore horror novella. I won’t give many details away because that would ruin parts of the story, but the cops find a body, and the descriptions of that body, along with the narrative about the way it came to be in that state and in that space will satisfy fans of gory scary stories as well as those who enjoy crime fiction that relies heavily on forensics. That combination, and the creepy, emotional writing it brings with it, makes this novel a must for lovers of good literature regardless of their genre preferences. This is a phantasmagoric, wonderfully mystifying read, and it puts Tremblay on the path to a second Stoker.