Review

Bad Things

by Michael Marshall

Following the success of THE INTRUDERS, which is being adapted
for a BBC television series, Michael Marshall cooks up his latest
creation of guilt and harmful secrets like a master chef. BAD
THINGS opens with the baddest thing possible for parents: a young
child gone missing near a large lake in a wooded area. Marshall
tightens the gut muscles of the parents to stomach-emptying
intensity --- and increases that constriction like an anaconda,
with increasingly bizarre events. There are bad things, indeed, in
this complex study of psychological insight to the emotional
responses to anger and guilt. Marshall’s superb writing is
not one of them.

With relief, Scott Henderson is spied standing at the end of a
jetty jutting into deep Murdo Pond in Washington State. As with
bizarre sights in The Sixth Sense --- in which central
character Cole Sear says, “I see dead people” --- young
Scott sees bad things in the lake depths and shouts for his father
to run. A coroner assures the parents that “the fall into the
water nor anything before that” resulted in the death.
“The boy just died.” Small consolation. Both parents
take on truckloads of guilt. If only the father had been with his
son on the jetty 20 minutes earlier. The mother obsessively checks
a locked door multiple times, to assure the remaining child does
not wander onto life’s gazillion jetties. Guilt for which
none should exist is more profoundly intense than that for
cause.

Marshall immediately hooks readers by telling of “the
man” (Scott’s father) who works too many hours to pay
for the two-million-dollar house on five acres at Murdo Pond. Too
many hours to smell roses, even a particularly fragrant one
standing on a jetty. Then Marshall switches to first-person
narrative, “a man” waits tables in a struggling
restaurant and takes ritual morning walks along the beach with a
big cup of coffee --- and a throat-tightening thought: “I
imagine what it would be like to have a smaller set of footprints
keeping pace with mine,” marking the sand. As a waiter with
deep thoughts, questioning life and death and the possibility of
supreme beings, John Henderson concludes that if “gods exist
then they are deaf or indifferent,” after pondering when he
had dived into the water to save his son, “that the wet,
heavy thing that remained was nothing but a lie.” Perhaps the
“heavy thing” is a father’s desperate attempt to
hold on to what was. The Hendersons’ marriage “had been
a fair-weather partnership, perhaps, and the weather had turned
very bad indeed.”

John richly observes a lone family dining late in the restaurant
“...eating in a silence so murderous it almost seemed to
drown out the music playing in the background.” It’s
easier to identify with a waiter who knows roses have fragrance
than a stressed-out attorney who thinks roses are made of silk.
John is reincarnated as Joe Six-Pack, instead of the wealthy person
he once was. Three years after his son’s death and living
alone, mysterious eMails begin to haunt the beach-walking
waiter who can’t afford to rent his own place, so he crashes
at the house of a friend who is always chasing elusive love in a
series of out-of-state romances. The ambiguous eMail
doesn’t attract much attention. “The e-mail was short.
I know what happened Nothing else. Not even a
period at the end of the sentence.”

John assumes the sender, Ellen Robertson, is just a spammer.
“I hit delete and went to bed.” Then why does he dwell
on eSpam, to the point of being “unable for once to even hear
the surf” from his rent-free ocean-front crash pad? Days
later, a considerably less ambiguous eMail is received.
“I know what happened to your son.” Period
included.

Responding by questioning who the sender is, “You expect a
reply.... Once the mark is hooked you don’t give them the
chance to wriggle off again. But an e-mail is an irrevocable act.
Once an e-mail’s sent it’s gone. It paints what
you’ve said on the wall and no amount of scrubbing will get
it off again.” The eMails metastasize, ultimately
providing a phone number. Adding oil to the slippery slope, Ellen
writes, “There’s no one who’s going to believe me
except you.... I can’t risk e-mailing again because
he’s scanning the Wi-Fi now.” The phone sounds the
unmistakable click of sudden termination.

Time for a trip. Returning to the dreadful site of his
son’s death opens a psychological box that John fears belongs
to Pandora, setting into motion a terrifying sequence of events
that causes him and readers to question social premises, the
meaning of life and death. This is a philosophical interpretation
of good and bad things, phenomenally told in a once-in-a-decade
novel. It isn’t long before John’s ex and their
remaining son, Tyler, get pulled onto the slippery slope. What
happens to Ellen is a nightmare on Stephen King Street. At least
she escapes “The Twilight Zone,” known as Black Ridge,
Washington. When she says there’s something sinister in Black
Ridge, she hits the nail on the head. >From there, it’s
all downhill, to where King intersects with A Nightmare on Elm
Street
. (With nightmare-generating scenes, being Michael
Marshall’s shrink must be a bad thing.)

John stands in front of the house where Scott had died and sees
a for-sale sign. A neighbor drives by and tells him it had been
bought years ago, but the new owners “didn’t take to
it, and they’re still trying to shift the place two years
later. Basically, somebody died. A kid. A young kid. Nobody’s
too clear on what actually happened. I heard the kid was a
strong swimmer...with no one else but the parents around, and
you’ve got to ask questions in those circumstances,
right?” The Chatty-Cathy neighbor concludes “it’s
not like you’re scared of ghosts...” and thinks John is
interested in buying the house. “When he had gone around the
corner and out of sight I walked back to the gate and climbed over
it.” With the house vacant for years and boarded up, John
thinks the interior must look like the inside of “a
cathedral-ceiling coffin,” and that neighbors gossip
speculation “with Scott as their own JonBenét
Ramsey....”

Michael Marshall is the new Stephen King, to the nth degree. He
successfully complements Carol O’Connell’s tormented
characters for roller-coaster-like psychological twists and
thrills. O’Connell’s character Oren Hobbs (from BONE BY
BONE) and John Henderson are extremely complex, with somewhat
damaged psyches who eventually find redemption. Unlike Oren, John
at first accepts (well, sort of) his son’s death, then begins
the soul search. The death of a brother torments Oren, until his
20-year soul search causes him to nearly bury alive his
brother’s murderer. John is so likable that readers will want
to befriend and comfort him. He is real. With
Amazon’s five-star rating system, as with any O’Connell
novel, BAD THINGS deserves six stars.

Bad Things
by Michael Marshall

  • Publication Date: December 1, 2010
  • Genres: Fiction, Thriller
  • Mass Market Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Harper
  • ISBN-10: 0061434418
  • ISBN-13: 9780061434419