I was incredibly excited to dive into this book. After the tremendous impact of A Head Full of Ghosts, it was an immense relief to know that I had another one of Paul Tremblay’s books up my sleeve. So, it was with extreme anticipation that I dived in to A Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, and I was not disappointed. This book is every bit as complex, nuanced and emotional as A Head Full of Ghosts, and in some ways it pushes the boundaries even further. The ambiguity and unique readings of Ghosts is present here too; it’s becoming a signature, and one I relish the opportunity to experience. Paul Tremblay’s fascination with the parallels between the supernatural and psychosis make for thrilling reading.
The synopsis reads:
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.
Late one summer night, Elizabeth Sanderson receives the devastating news that every mother fears: her fourteen-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 his disappearance. Feeling helpless and alone, their sorrow is compounded by anger and frustration. The local and state police haven’t uncovered any leads. Josh and Luis, the friends who were with Tommy last, may not be telling the whole truth about that night in Borderland State Park, when they were supposedly hanging out at a landmark the local teens have renamed Devil’s Rock— rumored to be cursed.
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 own 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 connected them all and changes everything.
As the search grows more desperate, and the implications of what happened becomes more haunting and sinister, no one is prepared for the shocking truth about that night and Tommy’s disappearance at Devil’s Rock
This book is visceral. The impact can be drawn back to the success with which Tremblay forms a rapport between the characters and the reader. One key to this is the dynamic he forms between Tommy and his friends; it is compellingly nostalgic, funny, innocent and genuine. The narrative is temporally forked between the interplay of Tommy and his friends leading up to the formative event of the novel, and the events following Tommy’s disappearance surrounding his mother, Elizabeth, his younger sister Kate, and his Grandmother. This second dynamic battles with the first, initially, offering a darker tone, something sobering, sinister and evocative in its emotional force. As they progress and develop, though, there is a darkness mirrored between them.
Tremblay moulds the book into a compelling mystery with a decidedly supernatural flavour. This is achieved through weaving an undercurrent of folklore, which is contrasted against the modern tendency of rationality. These modes clash as increasingly inexplicable events take place. This dissonance will be familiar to anybody who has read A Head Full of Ghosts. This book walks the razors edge of what is real, quantifiable and explainable and the hazy vistas of the unknown and the supernatural, just as Ghosts does.
As the book progresses tenuous connections form to drive suspicion and hint at a greater picture. It is absurdly readable and compelling and it is successful in no small part due to Tremblay’s proclivity to allude to the supernatural or the known as being equally plausible explanations. The traumatic events in the book could simply be reduced to minds stricken with terror, grief, loss or strain; but Tremblay offers the seductive possibility that there is more to the picture than this. It becomes lifeline to hold onto, an idea to escape within.
The group dynamic I mentioned earlier is heavily reminiscent of the friendship between the kids from Stranger Things. This book, like Stranger Things, greatly benefits from this rapport. We see, just as in Stranger Things, a series of events that result in a loss of innocence, a collision between childhood and the approach of adulthood. Stories like these are so beloved, I think, because of the sweet nostalgia they evoke. Stories like Stranger Things and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock fill a similar narrative and emotional space to Stephen King’s best work, especially the books that surround the end of innocence – ‘It’ being a primary example of this. We follow the classic narrative arc of childhood’s end in a stand against an encroaching evil – often formulated in the appearance of an adult, an invader from that world.
Tremblay refreshes this concept by updating the world in which these events are taking place. The classically compelling narrative and development of Stephen King gives way to the modern trappings of youth and pop-culture. This addition fosters realism and becomes an anchor in the reality of contemporary culture. It adds significant weight to the impact of the events therein. This is an incredibly sad book. It strikes a new chord for a new generation of readers and writers and reduces the reader’s tendency, or even ability, to disconnect from the events of the narrative. There are little to no anachronisms in Tremblay’s world to shake or upset immersion. It’s a window into the present and all the more realistic for it.
Tremblay leaves this book in an even more ambiguous state than A Head Full of Ghosts. When I closed the book I felt that this one was possibly more inexplicable in its resolution. The blend of reality and its contrast with folklore and local mythology, along with the shaky recollections and subjective accounts of witnesses make for an incredibly interesting and frightening mystery. This is a great book, and its ending has incredible impact. It will build you up and break you down then build you up again. This is a fantastic book and it deserves your attention. Do yourself a favour and experience it.