Quiet horror is the hardest kind to get right; but when it is done right, it’s a showcase of the best the genre has to offer. Stripped of gimmicks and gore, quiet horror takes people you’ve come to care about and makes you watch as something terrible slowly creeps in from the edges.
The “something terrible” happens early in Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, Paul Tremblay’s highly anticipated follow-up to his 2015 breakout, A Head Full of Ghosts. Elizabeth, a single mom raising two kids, gets the phone call every parent dreads when her son, Tommy, goes missing while fooling around with his friends in some nearby woods. But it’s the mystery surrounding Tommy’s disappearance—lost? abducted? running away? sacrificed?—that is the true “something terrible” here, as Tremblay lays out a number of possibilities, each more troubling than the last.
Tremblay uses a variety of techniques to tell the story, from straight-ahead prose, to flashbacks that reveal different angles of events, to transcriptions of police interviews. It’s a smart and effective approach to this particular tale, illustrating the ways Tommy’s disappearance affects several people in his immediate orbit. Tremblay does a great job of capturing the emotions and voices of these people, from Elizabeth (who can veer from steady and hopeful to panicked and distraught in seconds), to sister Kate (annoyed, angry, despairing), to friends Luis and Josh. These two were with Tommy when he disappeared, and Tremblay’s portrait of two young boys dealing with true fear for the first time in their lives feels especially accurate.
Adding to the real-world terror of a disappearing child is a little bit of folklore that Tremblay stirs in via a mysterious young man named Arnold that befriends Tommy, Josh and Luis. It’s Arnold that tells the boys the story of “Devil’s Rock,” a giant, split boulder in the woods that Arnold claims was once used to capture the Devil himself. Coupled with some mysterious sightings around the immediate area after Tommy’s disappearance, and in conjunction with the strange shadows that shift and move in Tommy’s own home after he’s gone, we begin to wonder if there is something supernatural at work in the woods. It’s a bold, risky move to introduce such elements into this otherwise straightforward story, but Tremblay makes it all work.
Everything builds toward a conclusion that’s nothing short of heartbreaking, and while Tremblay appears to lay all his cards on the table in the closing pages, the ending still leaves you wondering what exactly happened. Some people may be frustrated by such an ending, but for me it fit the tone of the book perfectly. Sometimes we don’t get the answers we want; sometimes we don’t get any answers at all. In life, those are rarely considered good options; in fiction, they are often the best gifts the writer could give us. In this case, I wouldn’t have had it any other way. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is highly recommended.