Back in the day --- the mid-20th century, to be exact --- there was a genre known as Gothic horror. Confined primarily to mass market paperbacks, the covers of such books almost always featured 1) a frightened-looking young and attractive woman; 2) a mansion that had but one light on, almost always in an upstairs window; and 3) a nighttime scene. THE SOUND OF A SCREAM brought me back to those good old days. John Manning takes every cliché from that genre, twists this and turns that, and makes all that was old new and wonderful again.
"[A] good old-fashioned horror story that blends the new with the tried-and-true. Do not miss this one under any circumstances."
The damsel in distress is Daphne May, who, as the story opens, has arrived in the unfortunately named town of Woebegone, Maine, to take employment as the governess for eight-year-old Christopher Witherspoon. Raised from birth in convent school, Daphne has led a sheltered life, to say the least. The governess job is not only her first real employment, but also her initial step into the outside world. And what a step it is. Daphne quickly finds out that the Witherspoons have a deadly and sordid family history. Christopher’s grandfather, Peter Sr., was a maniacal serial killer whose reign of terror over the small town ended when he killed himself in his jail cell. Peter Jr., now 70, lives in the sprawling family mansion with his young wife, Ashlee (Christopher’s stepmother), his elderly sisters, his nephews, and an oddball assortment of servants.
As soon as Daphne steps off the train at the Woebegone Station, things begin to get stirred up. After catching a glimpse of a clown in a restaurant --- an apparition that no one else sees --- she stumbles upon the body of a young woman who has just been murdered. It turns out that the victim was a friend of Ashlee’s, but the clown is even more sinister. It develops that the late Peter Sr. had a penchant for dressing as a clown as well. The clown keeps reappearing, people start dying violently, and Daphne is totally on her own.
Well, not totally. She has attracted the not-unwelcome attention of Gregory Winston, who, as he puts it, owns the half of the town that Daphne’s employer, Peter Jr., does not. Of course there is bad blood between Gregory and Peter Jr., which goes way back, and as the bodies begin to pile up, Daphne starts entertaining the uncomfortable thought that Gregory may be clowning around in more ways than one. Things come to a horrific, violent climax before everything is ultimately sorted out, but along the way, Manning does a magnificent job of turning certain conventions ever-so-subtly on their collective ear.
Is there a mystery at the heart of THE SOUND OF A SCREAM? You bet; there are several in fact. You may guess some of them, and if you are really good, you will get all of them. But the wild ride to which Manning treats you is better than the ultimate destination, which, truth be told, isn’t bad at all, either. One element in particular will surprise you, just as you thought you were about to be treated to a “Scooby-Doo” climax. The result is a good old-fashioned horror story that blends the new with the tried-and-true. Do not miss this one under any circumstances.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on March 22, 2012