He held his breath, straining to hear over Terry’s stupid game—muffled but still audible through the open front windows. Aunt Mandy’s doorbell ding-donged, soft murmurs drifting up into the almost-darkened sky. And then, the muffled beauty of the evening was shattered by a wail. A soul being torn from a body. Tragedy shaped into sound waves. The cry was so all-encompassing that it seemed to blast in from every direction, as though an angel had stuck her head through a cloud and screamed down from the sky, her cry wrapping around the world like a choking veil. But it was a familiar voice, Aunt Mandy shouting as if those officers were fileting her still-beating heart.
The book was recommended in a top 10 list of good horror reads (along with The Haunting of Ashburn House and The Walking. I’ve left it out of my reading list for quite a while but while being stuck in an airport for 6h, decided to pick it up. I absolutely got dragged in head first into this horrific tale that had at its center a disappearing, two children and a monstrous being.
Imagine a quiet village in Oregon, small and very close to the backwoods. Imagine an abandoned house lost in the forest where no-one seemed to live in. Imagine a mother who gave birth to a monster and instead of killing it, she fed him and took care of him as best as she could until the creature reached maturity.
And imagine you have a 12-year old going missing. It’s not the first time someone disappeared. A child of 6 went missing a few years back and was never found.
This is the story of Stevie, the missing boy’s cousin, a lovely child with a form of learning disability and a stutter that would come in whenever he was agitated. A ten year-old who would occasionally see monsters and suffer from hallucinations strong enough that would make him put his fingers through the kitchen waste disposal.
Stevie is not perfect – he is flawed and he tries his best even with the physical abuse he receives constantly from his step-father, Terry.
The book details some horrific scenes where Stevie is belted for having played in Terry’s junk yard. Or for speaking out. Or for speaking back. His mother is not spared of the violence and not once she had to pretend she fell or hit herself in a cupboard door.
To Stevie, his cousin Jude is the only friend he got, even though Jude was suffering from anger bouts and was prone to push Steve if he got in his way.
When Jude goes missing, Stevie becomes a detective and starts looking for his best friend feeling that society had disappointed them. His mother helps at the beginning putting flyers up and helping with the search but Stevie doesn’t think it’s enough.
It was like the riddle his teacher had presented at school: If a tree falls in a forest and there’s nobody around to hear it, does it make a sound? The answer was no. Because without ears, sound didn’t exist. Without eyes, light was darkness. And without a body, there was no victim. Which is why, despite his aunt’s woeful cries, Stevie refused to believe it. Not until he saw Jude in a coffin, a waxwork dressed up in a suit he’d have never worn in real life.
The book does not just deal with a supernatural element related to the house on the hill but also takes time to analyse the trauma that a missing child brings on the mother and his immediate family. To a child, this is blowing out of proportions and Stevie starts feeling like his cousin has been swallowed whole.
But Stevie hardly heard her. He was too distracted by his aunt’s hollow eyes, too disturbed by her sunken cheeks. Her mouth looked three times too big for her face—huge and warped, downturned like soft taffy. He pictured her opening her mouth as wide as she could, her entire face disappearing behind a grief-stricken maw, a scream stuck in there somewhere, Jude’s fingers suddenly jutting out of the blackness of her throat as though she’d swallowed him, as if it had been her that had made him vanish all along.
The story shifts then to the inhabitants of the house on the hill. Rosamund wanted a baby. Her husband, Ansel, was the local doctor and very loved. When she had a miscarriage, she spiralled off into depression and nearly run away from home to a peaceful retreat. She only stayed there for a night but the character that she met there asked her a very important question.
“To make your hopes and dreams come true,” he clarified—exactly what Rosie had thought he’d been getting at. “What would you give up to get what you want?”
She watched him for a long while, thrown off balance by the directness of his inquiry. It was a question she’d contemplated so many times, vacillating between giving up everything and nothing at all. Back when there was still hope, it hadn’t felt as though sacrifice was necessary. Patience would remedy the situation, and in a way, it had. She’d waited for years and finally been given what she wanted, but it had been torn away. Hope, born dead in a bathtub. White porcelain left soiled with swaths of blood. And why? Had she angered God somehow? Had she done something so terrible in a past life that she was now the butt of some evenhanded joke? No, that couldn’t be. Rosie had grown up a good girl; she’d always been a pious woman.
She had done her time in church pews and had prayed every night. At least, she had until her baby had been snatched away. shallow breath.
“Anything”. Because without a child, Rosie wasn’t sure she mattered. She wanted to be bigger than herself, wanted to give meaning to someone’s life beyond her own.
Her wish comes true but with a cost. Her husband dies in a freak accident and pretty soon she finds out she’s pregnant. Ashamed of the public opinion, she goes into hiding and stops going into town. She gives birth to a hideously deformed child and she loves him like a mother would. Even though the child would gnaw on her, drawing blood when he would feed and pretty soon, he starts chasing the house cat.
Rosamund notices something interesting. She sees that the child attacks the cat and feeds of it but the cat is no longer scared of the child. The cat willingly goes back for more and even brings other cats from the neighbourhood to serve the child. “Church of the Child” she calls it chillingly as the demon creature she birthed was attracting animals from around the area and was feeding off them. Rosamund saw the bloodshed and her back garden started containing multiple burials for all the poor creatures that died at the hands of her son. When her son kills a boy that went looking for his lost dog, she panics and manages to get rid of the body but the fear is there… And then comes Jude.
She manages to pry Jude off from her son’s hands and let him go free but Jude has been bitten and he’s not the same anymore.. Even after he returns home, Stevie notices that his cousin has changed.
And you look like crap, Jude. You look like zombie crap. M-maybe wherever you were, they did something to your brain, like those old-timey doctors where they aren’t supposed to do that anymore but they still do because they’re old and spiders are there, and nobody knows where, and the hospital is covered in webs, and maybe it’s on the same road, the scary road where that house is, and there’s a big chain. Maybe they did something to your brain and you don’t even know it, Jude. You don’t even know it. But I know it.”
The cousin’s behaviour becomes stranger and strangers, staring off in the middle of the night, burning and peeling in the sun, not sleeping. Even his aunt starts looking gaunt and zombie-like. Stevie is very concerned and he feels he needs to do something.
And what if neither his mom nor Aunt Mandy were disturbed by Jude’s appearance because they simply couldn’t see the change? What if Stevie had magical vision, a third eye, some sort of psychic sight? Perhaps that’s why he saw things differently—the shadow people, the maggots in his cereal, spiders stuffed inside his pillowcase that his mother insisted weren’t there. It could have been that all the stuff that seemed real to him but invisible to others had been preparing him for his ultimate purpose: this purpose. Saving his best friend.
He follows Jude to the haunted house one evening and sees that his cousin was wearing a mallet with spiky ends. Stevie thought he was going to kill the monster but the truth was different.
Only then did he realize that his hands were shaking. Tremors at age ten. Like the last two leaves of a tree on the final day of fall.
Jude was bringing Stevie to the monster as an offering. Stevie was quick to react and hit the grown monster twice and started running with Jude close on his trail. He manages to escape and barely manage to warn his parents when screams erupted next door. Jude went in with his mallet and started hitting his own mother. In the conflict that arises, Jude is killed by Stevie by multiple hits with a hammer and is then committed to a mental hospital. The book ends with a new girl moving into the town with her grandparents and researching the disappearances, she runs into Stevie’s story. Neither Stevie’s mother or his aunt mentioned that Jude attacked his mother first and they put the attack down to Stevie’s early indications of schizophrenia.
The new girl sends letters to Stevie in the hospital but does not believe him about the monster in the abandoned house. She decides to take her dog for a walk on that hill.
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