The "woods outside of town" are a go-to locale for writers of spooky or scary fiction. Those deep, dark woods are where children get lost or abducted, where frightening figures, real or imagined, dwell. And while placing young characters in those woods is not wildly original, a book that does so is not necessarily unimaginative or derivative.
Take Jennifer McMahon's latest, DON'T BREATHE A WORD, for example. This atmospheric and surreal novel centers on a girl named Lisa who disappeared in the woods 15 years ago. She and the other children of the town of Harmony were always warned to stay out of the woods. Inside them are the remains of the small village of Reliance. The superstitions and fears of Harmony are connected to the ruins of Reliance; a place abandoned, the people disappeared. But Lisa, her brother Sam, and her cousin Evie are drawn to the woods and to Reliance as a place of adventure and the seat of their family history.
The ethereal Lisa seems the polar opposite of Evie. Lisa is willowy and dreamy, her head filled with ideas about fairies and magic. She hopes the King of Fairies, who she believes lives in the woods and has recently left her gifts, can save her father from the depressed and suicidal stupor he has been living in. Evie is tough as nails, living with her alcoholic mother (Lisa's mother's sister) who also is a caretaker for Lisa and Sam's father. With her knife at hand, Evie is always ready to defend Lisa, from dangers in the woods and out. Sam, the youngest of the trio, is skeptical of the existence of fairies. The summer Lisa disappears, he tries his best to convince her that fairies are not real and no Fairy King is awaiting her in the woods.
But when Lisa goes to meet the King one night in an empty cellar in Reliance and never returns, Sam must come to terms with the belief that drove her out into the night, the guilt he feels at her disappearance and what may have really happened that night. He grows up to be a logical and sensible man who tries to put the idea of fairies and haunted woods behind him.
When 15 years later Sam's girlfriend Phoebe gets a phone call from someone claiming to be Lisa, Sam and Phoebe are pulled into a violent and strange confrontation with the past. Sam is contacted by Evie, who invites them to an out-of-the-way cabin and requests they bring along the book Lisa received from the King of Fairies. But once they arrive at the cabin, Sam and Phoebe experience a series of bizarre and scary events that remind Phoebe of the nightmares of her past. As the events unfold, a connection between Phoebe and Sam's family emerges, another woman claiming to be Evie shows up, Lisa returns, the identity of the King of Fairies is revealed, and Sam comes back home to try to learn the truth about his sister and the rest of his family.
Though readers gain information along with Sam and Phoebe as the story progresses, nothing is made clear. Are the woods haunted by Sam and Lisa's grandfather, or is the family plagued instead by incest and abuse? Who was the dark figure of Phoebe's dreams, and how is her mother's death connected to Sam's family? With a fast pace, a page-turning excitement and a chilling conclusion, DON'T BREATHE A WORD is a suspenseful and dark thriller where the supernatural themes play out against a backdrop of small-town rumors and extreme family dysfunction.
Disturbing and compelling, McMahon's novel doesn't always make sense and isn't always cohesive. But ultimately it doesn't matter much and in some ways contributes well to the scariness of the book. The fears and problems she writes about are universal, and the merging of genres like horror and mystery, and story lines such as coming of age and family secrets, is interesting. In the end, DON'T BREATHE A WORD is a creepy and fun read.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on May 24, 2011