Summer is officially here but if you’re heading out to your local state park for some hiking, camping, or (if you’re a high schooler) some late-night ragers without adult supervision, Paul Tremblay’s Disappearance at Devil’s Rock will make you think twice.
Late one August night, 13-year-old Tommy Sanderson inexplicably leaves his two best friends behind and runs into the woods of Borderland State Park in Massachusetts. The story opens with every parent’s very worst nightmare: an unexpected late-night phone call telling you your child is missing. Tommy’s mother, Elizabeth, has a bad news phone call before—nine years prior, when her ex-husband (and Tommy’s father) died in a car crash. Instantly she—and readers—are placed in a state of heightened tension that rarely lets up. Like a meteor’s crash, Tommy’s disappearance slams into Elizabeth and Tommy’s kid sister Kate and the impact radiates through his circle of friends, his small community, and the world beyond through social media and cable news.
But what really happened to Tommy on that night is more unsettling than anyone can imagine.
Early on, in the thick of her exhaustion with the ongoing search for Tommy, Elizabeth sees what she believes to be Tommy’s ghost crouching in her bedroom. This unexplained visit from her missing son is just one more bit of private hell she carries mostly alone, trying to appear strong for her daughter and not get driven mad by the investigation’s shortcomings. A break in the case comes when pages torn from Tommy’s secret diary begin to appear on the floor of Elizabeth’s living room.
In Tremblay’s 2015 novel A Head Full of Ghosts, the main narrative was punctuated with “non-fiction” horror blog entries from a young woman. Here, we discover more about Tommy and his two friends through his diary entries. Tremblay exceeds at giving characters distinct voices—especially, it seems, teens. And he does so in a way that never seems too forced with references to pop culture and slang, which is no small feat. There are just enough mentions of Minecraft, Snapchat, and zombie movies to keep the story grounded and paint a picture of three kids uncertain of their standing in society and even within their own group.
Tommy, especially, is the loner of his group. Or the most lonely. The kid with the dead dad he can’t talk to his mother about, whose friends don’t quite get it. Those friends, Josh and Luis, have their own insecurities, too, and the trio’s lazy summer days of bike rides, first sips of stolen beer, and the impending doom of high school reminded me of Stephen King’s The Body, adapted for film as Stand By Me. So when Tommy’s journal starts mentioning that he and his buds met an older guy named Arnold, my stomach knotted with dread because obviously Tommy is going to be vulnerable to this stranger who claims to be a seer and knows more things about Tommy and the teen hangout nicknamed Devil’s Rock than he should.
The diary interludes and chapter titles propel the story forward in a story that is sometimes a slow-burner. Elizabeth is understandably having a hard time holding her shit together as she tries to convince the case detective that something more sinister and possibly spectral is going on, but it gets frustrating to watch Elizabeth drinking and arguing with her daughter, especially when we view Elizabeth from Kate’s preteen, angry, and confused perspective.
Tremblay also gives readers a window to the world outside the Sanderson house, providing smart takes on a perfect shitstorm of a news story about a missing white boy from a small town and the Internet Age urban legend of Slenderman (well, Shadowman, here.) When people start tweeting about this “Shadowman” looking in their windows and running across their lawns at night, is it mass psychosis or something real? Is the history of Devil’s Rock truly diabolical? Are “felt presence” theories true? While not quite as meta as A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is aware of its tropes and succeeds in twisting them into disturbing new shapes.
While A Head Full of Ghosts hit closer to home for me personally, painfully so, at times, I think Disappearance at Devil’s Rock will have an even broader appeal. And not just because Stephen King himself is now such a vocal Tremblay fan. Because when we do find out what happened to Tommy on that August night? Or a version of what happened to Tommy on that night? Tremblay left me speechless, breathless, deeply unsettled and impossibly impressed. I love being genuinely scared by a book, so Disappearance at Devil’s Rock left me with a giant smile, too. And questions, so many questions. The novel itself lingers, like a felt presence all its own. In a summer of great horror releases, this one is among the very best.
Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is available now from William Morrow.
Theresa DeLucci is a regular contributor to Tor.com, covering horror, the Weird and TV, including HBO’s Game of Thrones. She’s also discussed entertainment for Boing Boing and Wired.com’s Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy. Follow her on Twitter.