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Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul TremblayUK edition3 stars

Buy from IndieBoundThere is surely nothing more devastating to a parent than the loss of a child. But when that loss is shrouded in the unknown, the sense that no resolution might be forthcoming, or even that having a resolution will leave so many unanswered questions, it must be infinitely overwhelming. That’s the crisis at the heart of this eerie suburban gothic. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock works better, perhaps, as a case study in emotional family turmoil than as a mystery or horror tale. But Paul Tremblay gets everything agonizingly right in finding his story’s emotional core.

Fourteen-year-old Tommy Sanderson is the boy who disappears. He has been living with his single mother, Elizabeth, and kid sister Kate in a community that is quintessential Americana, and his interests include playing Minecraft with his buds, Josh and Luis. It is a Typical Adolescence. His father died when he and Kate were barely out of diapers, and the man was never all that engaged as a parent anyway. Not long before he died in a single car collision, he had done something a bit out of character, cutting all ties and disappearing off the grid for a few weeks. But while Tommy was too young to be all that impacted at the time, he’s now of an age where he thinks about his dad more and more. Because he is 14 and lacking an adult male role model, he is vulnerable in this area. This will be important.

There is a massive park near where Tommy and his family lives, and the boys have a favorite hangout, a huge cracked boulder formation formally called Split Rock but which they call something else. One day the boys go out there, and of the three of them, Tommy never comes home.

From here the story plunges with both feet into the Sanderson family’s emotional quicksand, and readers are spared nothing of the confusion, mistrust and existential anguish that comes from the shattering of the family unit. It isn’t just not knowing if Tommy is alive or dead. Elizabeth must confront the fact that adolescence is that odd transitional period in your child’s life where your parental blanket of protection is no longer as complete as it once was, and is in fact being torn away as your child begins naturally establishing his own identity and interests, developing a sense of self that doesn’t include you. Adolescence is when you begin to have secrets you keep from mom.

It transpires that a young man in his twenties, whom Josh and Luis know only as Andrew, had begun hanging out at the rock with them, sharing beers (that first tempting if intimidating step into the forbidden world of grown-ups) and telling strange stories about being a “seer.” Boys at 14 want to be cool and fit in come what may, but Josh and Luis could never really grasp why Tommy felt so drawn to Andrew. Slowly, facts surrounding these meetings at the rock and the strange, shifting relationship between Andrew and the boys come to disturbing light, while, back at home, pages from Tommy’s diary notebooks are popping up inexplicably around the house.

Hints of the supernatural, of possible ghostly visitations by Tommy, are deftly and believably handled by Tremblay as the possible psychological splash damage impacting Elizabeth and Kate as the investigation wears on and on. As for the mystery itself, there is a sense of inevitability to the proceedings, and while intense and disturbing revelations do come, they aren’t especially surprising. The book’s climactic chapters also have their dramatic effect muted somewhat by Tremblay’s choice to tell them in the form of transcripts of police statements. But you have rarely seen the consequences and emotional fallout from family tragedy depicted with such raw, unflinching honesty. Just because ghosts might only exist in your head doesn't mean you aren’t haunted.

Followed, after a fashion, by Survivor Song.