Book Review: Disappearance at Devil’s Rock by Paul Tremblay
A review copy was provided by the publisher in exchange for an honest review. All opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: William Morrow (June 21, 2016)
Length: 327 pages
Earlier this year I had the pleasure of reading Paul Tremblay’s A Head Full of Ghosts, which promptly landed him on my “I must read more of this author!” list. So when I found out about his new book Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, I simply couldn’t resist checking it out.
Now that I’m finished reading though, I feel torn. Don’t get me wrong; I didn’t think the book was bad, but I also definitely didn’t think it was as good as A Head Full of Ghosts, not even close. Yes, it’s entirely possible that my expectations were way too high going into this, but there were also some pacing problems and other issues I couldn’t ignore, not to mention I also didn’t enjoy the premise as much, which I’m sure played into my overall tepid feelings for this novel.
The book opens with a moment all parents dread. Elizabeth Sanderson, the story’s protagonist, receives a phone call in the middle of the night telling her that her thirteen-year-old son is missing. The caller is her son Tommy’s friend, Josh, who tells her that the two boys and another friend Luis have all been in the woods of Borderland State Park. The three of them had stolen some beer from their parents and had snuck out to do some drinking, Josh says, just hanging out at landmark nicknamed the Devil’s Rock, when Tommy suddenly ran into the trees. This was hours ago, and no one has seen him since.
The next few days are a nightmare for Elizabeth and her daughter Kate as they wait for news. The townspeople are searching the woods tirelessly, police have been called in to investigate, and the media is giving the case national attention. But still, no sign of Tommy. Stressed with worry and grief, Elizabeth starts to think she’s seeing things that aren’t there. That first night, she could have sworn she saw a shadow of Tommy visiting her as a ghost, but believing that also makes her feel terrible because she doesn’t want to give up hope her son is still alive. Then there are the mysterious pages from Tommy’s diary, inexplicably appearing in places for Elizabeth to find. The journal entries reveal a complicated young man who has become increasingly troubled by the loss of his father, Elizabeth’s ex-husband who abandoned his family years ago and died in a drunk-driving accident. Tommy also writes about his experiences in the days leading up to his disappearance, which sheds light on the testimonies of his friends Josh and Luis, indicating that the two boys might not be as forthcoming as they claim. Will these diary pages ultimately lead to the truth behind Tommy’s disappearance?
Like A Head Full of Ghosts, there’s an air of ambiguity that shrouds the story. Paul Tremblay gives just enough to blur the lines between the mundane and the paranormal, keeping readers wondering if there’s more than meets the eye. The book is like a puzzle, providing us with pieces of the narrative from Elizabeth, Kate, Josh, Luis, as well as Allison, the lead investigator on Tommy’s case. Then there are the diary entries from Tommy, words straight from the missing teen himself. Sometimes the different angles reveal answers, helping us fill in the gaps. At other times, they reveal inconsistencies, which is how we later find out some characters aren’t being as truthful as they claim.
I’m aware this style of storytelling usually relies on slower, more methodical pacing. Still, the plodding speed at which this book began was almost unbearable. At one point, I wondered how much of the boys’ shenanigans and their back-and-forth teenage jargon I would have to take before the story would finally get moving. After the initial report that Tommy is missing, the book slows to a crawl and doesn’t pick up again until later, and even then it’s a very gradual escalation without an immediate hook or much suspense.
As I said, I also didn’t enjoy the premise as much. A Head Full of Ghosts was definitely more my bag when it comes to horror, more so than Disappearance at Devil’s Rock which was less “horrific” in the traditional sense. I was unsettled by the story in that I sympathized with Elizabeth’s gut-wrenching sorrow of being a mom with a missing child, but if I was terrified at all, it was more at the idea that one day I’ll be a parent to teenagers, and it scares the hell out of me to read about the kinds of things kids can get up to these days. That left me neither here nor there with this book; it didn’t creep me out the way I would expect from a horror novel, but it was also too slow for me to see it as a true thriller.
That is why I think so much will depend on the kind of horror novel you prefer, and personally speaking this one just didn’t work as well for me—certainly not as well as A Head Full of Ghosts, which I found genuinely clever and creepy at the same time. I also thought that one was a much better book, in terms of writing and construction. Given my high hopes for Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, perhaps it was inevitable that I would be let down, but I suspect I’m in the minority on my feelings for this book. So if the premise sounds like something you’ll enjoy, I strongly urge you to give it a try.