At first glance, VANISH might seem like a blender version of LEFT BEHIND and THE STAND. But read on and you’ll find that this exciting page-turner is as unique and creative as it is suspenseful. Author Tom Pawlik will certainly have a following when word starts to spread about his debut work of fiction, which won the 2006 Jerry B. Jenkins Christian Writers Guild’s Operation First Novel contest.
In the first three chapters, readers are introduced to three strangers: Conner Hayden, a lawyer whose grief over his dead son separated him from his family; 50-year-old Helen Krause, who desperately clings to her fading youth and beauty; and Mitch Kent, a young mechanic who angrily left home and dreams of starting his own auto repair shop. Each has a secret, and before falling into a deep slumber, each sees a storm unlike anything they’ve ever encountered.
“The low rumble of thunder grew louder as it approached. Thick clouds rolled westward like a giant wave washing across the sky. Prolonged flashes of lightening blazed inside the billows – red, blue, and amber.”
The storm is the last thing they recall before awakening to an eerily silent world in which everyone else has disappeared. Everyone but the faceless creatures hiding in the shadows. As Conner, Helen and Mitch search for other people, they find each other. Two boys, an inner-city teen and a speechless child, join the little band as they seek answers and a safe haven from the mysterious whispering creatures. It isn’t long, however, before the boys disappear as well. As the edge-of-your-seat story moves forward, the creatures become more aggressive and frightening.
“And the gray creatures emerged from behind him... White soulless eyes gazed at him. Burned through him. Mouths gaped open. Black tongues rolled forward. Thick saliva, like tar, dripped from their jaws. The stench of death and rot filled Conner’s nostrils.”
Their presence brings fear and frigid air, their touch produces an ugly rash. Far worse, however, are the hallucinations they seem to control that draw our protagonists into horrifying scenes from their past. Conner is forced to watch helplessly as his dead son drowns again in the backyard pool. Helen must endure her grown son’s torment as he is covered with burning blisters. And time after time, Mitch re-enters the bedroom where his cancer-ridden mother lay on her deathbed, gasping for air.
In a desperate attempt to escape the creatures, the group of survivors boards a boat, only to find that as day turns to dusk, the familiar mist rises from the water, bringing with it a horror from below. Upon landing in Michigan, they find another survivor, but how is it possible that he’s been dealing with the creatures for several weeks instead of just a couple of days? When night falls and the mist rolls in from the lake, the creatures surround the house, scraping at the roof and clawing at the windows, causing the reader to read ever faster until the scenario culminates with the horrific capture of one more character. They continue on, fleeing the “aliens,” battling their hallucinations, trying in vain to figure out how and why their world became a living nightmare. (No doubt, those creepy, demonic creatures will be rising out of hazy swirls of mist and appearing on the silver screen one day.)
Revealing the Christian element in this novel would likely ruin the ending, but rest assured it is there. Pawlik ties all aspects of VANISH together beautifully in a conclusion that is definitely not happily-ever-after for everyone, but that delivers a Christian message and certainly succeeds in stirring the imagination and the spirit.
Reviewed by Susan Miura on June 18, 2008