It’s the early 1980s, and Satan is everywhere. He’s lurking in the lyrics of heavy metal music. He’s hiding among the marshmallows in your Lucky Charms. He’s capering through our neighborhoods, our basements, or churches, our schools.
Welcome to the era of Satanic Panic.
If you think the last few years are the first time our country has trembled on the brink of losing its collective damn mind, think again. In the 1980s, preachers and politicians led their respective flocks on a bewildering crusade built on a shaky foundation of hearsay, rumor, innuendo, and unfounded theory. Things got wild, and for a while television talk shows and radio airwaves were dominated by the idea that Satanists were thriving in our midst, holding midnight rituals and stealing souls right under our noses.
I grew up in a Christian household, and am a practicing Christian to this day. I believe in Satan, and I believe he works to influence us in many ways. But I did not then, and do not now, believe he’s in my damn cereal.
I don’t know if Clay McLeod Chapman is a child of the ’80s or not, but I can tell you he’s done an amazing job recreating the atmosphere of paranoia and fear that reigned for a brief period of time. He’s done particularly well in illustrating how some grownups seemed to need to believe this stuff, and how they projected that need onto their children in sometimes damaging doses.
Sean is one of those children. He’s a five-year-old kid in 1983, and what he wants more than anything is to be seen, trusted, and believed. His chance comes when another child makes some vaguely alarming references to a game the teacher has their class participate in. Soon Sean is being asked what he remembers — which isn’t much, and certainly nothing that ever bothered him. But it’s so easy to go along with what they suggest, these teachers and police and authority figures who are suddenly so interested in what he has to say. Sean’s small fabrications are soon embraced and embellished, leading to a sensational trial and the ruination of a number of lives.
Robert is a teacher in 2013. He’s leading a quiet, innocuous life, trying to build a family with his wife and stepson. Despite his vanilla existence, there appears to be someone with a vendetta against him…someone who announces their presence by butchering a school pet and leaving it for Richard to find.
Whisper Down the Lane is a simple story on its surface, but the premise is layered with examinations of memory, deceit, forgiveness, and — perhaps the most frightening idea the book puts forth — the way hysteria can echo through generations. Chapman’s prose is neat as a pin, absent any flourishes that would distract you from its narrative drive. For those who missed the era of Satanic Panic (but maybe got a recent taste thanks to Lil Nas X and his Satan Shoes), it’s an intriguing look at how far things can get out of hand — and how fast. For those of us who lived through it, it’s a sobering reminder of how easily (and, sometimes, willingly) society can be manipulated.
Either way, it’s highly recommended.