“The intent of the author seems fully to deliver a story that’s both subtle, literary thriller and dark, psychological horror. To walk a line that straddles different genres without losing what makes each one powerful.”
Currently, one of the most hotly debated topics in the genre is what exactly constitutes horror. There are many diverse and divisive opinions on this, and arguments rage across social media and the internet. And much of this discourse seeks to limit what’s included, rather than expand the genre’s horizons. But surely casting the net wide is better than narrowing the field? Ultimately, though, perhaps these discussions are essential, as often minds can be turned onto work they might not otherwise experience. And perhaps a measure of fluidity is horror’s greatest survival trait, allowing it to evolve, mutate, absorb, and assimilate. Much like the monsters some stories depict. Add to this authorial intent, and perhaps this is closer to knowing what is and isn’t horror.
This brings us to Whisper Down the Lane by Clay McLeod Chapman.
On the surface, the book would appear to be quintessential horror material. Even before cracking open the pages, the cover depicts children arranged around a satanic-looking pentagram. The colour-scheme is black and red, the children rendered in stark shades of grey. All very dark and foreboding. And the story suggests ritualistic killings, corrupted children, and insidious, devil-worshipping evil. Horror fans—even those who have only a passing acquaintance with the genre—will immediately think of Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, the books of Dennis Wheatley. And the opening pages seem to bear all this out. Our initial main character, Richard, describes the finding of a dead body one morning on school property. The corpse and its innards seem to have been placed in a ritualistic manner. That the victim is a tame rabbit belonging to the school makes it no less grim. Art teacher Richard is the one to discover the violated creature, and it sets off a thread of disquiet in him. Certain words which pop into his head at the sight resonate strangely with him.
Thereafter, the book jumps back to the early 80s to follow five-year-old Sean. He’s moving to a new place with his mother, and at first it feels like a happy road trip. But quickly, disquiet seeps in again; Chapman hints they’re running from, not to, something. Little Sean senses his mom isn’t acting quite as normal but he’s too young to understand why. Even at such a young age, Sean’s world is filled with uncertainty, tinged with sadness. This then, is how the book progresses from here on out. Alternating each chapter between Richard and Sean. Threading an unsettling atmosphere throughout both their ordinary—at first—seeming lives. For once past the Grand Guignol-like opening, Chapman describes scenes of both characters’ largely unremarkable lives. In Richard’s strand, we follow his attempts to settle into married life, to adopt his wife’s son. All while someone seems intent on unravelling his very sanity, leaving signs and hints of a dark past, pushing him into isolation and mistrust. And with Sean, we see a confused little boy who only wants to please his mother set in motion events that tear communities and families apart.
The book moves into psychological drama-thriller territory, yet never fully relinquishes that horror sensibility. For while it pursues a line of paranoia, of mob mentality and whispered accusations growing arms and legs, and of secrets from the past affecting the present, it never lets go of its dark, unsettling tone. Perhaps that’s due to the nature of the ‘satanic panic’ which permeates the book. Or maybe it’s as much to do with Chapman’s subtle storytelling. He only ever shows what he wants to show, and he peppers his narrative with unnerving moments. From Richard’s odd interactions with certain secondary characters to Sean’s growing mistrust of every adult and even his mother as she seems to unravel more and more.
Early on in the book, we’re shown Sean is Richard when he was young, though the adult barely remembers much of his childhood. Yet someone does. And this unknown person—or persons—seems determined to wreck Richard’s life. As we come to understand more what happened to Sean, so we begin to try and unravel what might be happening to Richard. In this, there are parallels to thriller and psychological drama novels, as the reader’s impetus takes in the growing mysteries, the suspense. But the main focus remains with the crushing emotional impact both strands have on their protagonists. Richard falls into anxiety, depression, lashing out at those closest to him. Sean’s innocent little mind becomes ever more clouded and fragile. And still that sense of terror, of genuine dark evil permeates and underpins the story. Even after the last word is read, that dread lingers, difficult to shake off.
Ultimately, although Whisper Down the Lane could happily sit alongside the likes of Gone Girl, In the Woods, or Behind Her Eyes, it also shares DNA with, say, Needful Things, The Stepford Wives, or A Head Full of Ghosts. The intent of the author seems fully to deliver a story that’s both subtle, literary thriller and dark, psychological horror. To walk a line that straddles different genres without losing what makes each one powerful. That he manages to walk that line with seeming ease, creating something that’s simultaneously terrifying, compelling, mentally and emotionally devastating, and immensely readable is astonishing. It speaks to a great talent, an ability to wield complete control over his themes and intentions. Whisper Down the Lane could easily have been one thing or the other. It could have gone full-on horror if it wished, or simply removed those elements completely to compete with the thriller of the month. That it manages to combine genres without feeling muddy or wishy-washy, showcasing ambiguity without losing focus, is an incredible feat. With luck, this book will find favour amongst audiences of either genre. And for those of us who enjoy both, this novel is a delight. A bruising, pummelling, heart-stopping experience which drains you, yes, but a delight, nevertheless.
And as for the question above … ?
Without a doubt, yes; this is horror.
Publisher: Quirk Books
Hardback: 336 pgs.
Release Date: 6 April 2021
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