Coming off of the success of the wildly popular A Head Full of Ghosts, a contemporary story of demonic possession clashing with popular culture, Tremblay has already laid out some of the groundwork for his answer. Both A Head Full of Ghosts and Disappearance overlay their stories on characters much more complex than the average horror story protagonists who are often just suffering vessels or vanquishing heroes of supernatural evil. Tremblay focuses on creating very real worlds with evils more nebulous and less tangible than those that plague typical gorefests. He doesn’t spill much ink on monsters — he focuses instead on fully realized people whose lives readers might connect with, leading to some very real fear when the unexplained creeps in.
Both books deal heavily with life in the information age, but instead of clarifying things, the internet has an amplifying effect on his horror. Disappearance exists in the world of the “creepypastas,” a phenomenon of new urban legends. These are unexplainable weird stories and conspiracy theories that have spread because of their web presence rather than in spite of it. Instead of extinguishing the unsettling ambiguity of urban legends, “creepypastas” capitalize on the power of a well-fashioned story over the cold-water reality of scientific facts. See, for example, the horrifying “Slender Man” incident in 2014, when two young Wisconsin girls repeatedly stabbed a classmate in order to become proxies for a being whose existence proved to be an internet hoax. The characters of Disappearance are very aware of these stories — less than two chapters in, they’re already passing time discussing the possibility of zombie escape plans, Minecraft Easter eggs, and other morbid conspiracies that coalesce in the forums and news sites they follow. “No supernatural zombies,” Tommy, the victim of the titular disappearance, chides his friends. “Those aren’t like real-life zombies that can happen.” Tremblay reminds us that the human nature for storytelling, making the fantastic into something real and tangible, is as present in our modern times as it ever was. For these characters, especially Tommy, it is not just entertainment but an anxious exercise in control, no matter how unlikely the circumstances. It is in this context that the novel starts, set in — where else? — an idyllic New England suburb.
Tremblay’s novel concerns the teenage Tommy’s disappearance, and it’s told from the viewpoints of the people he leaves behind — his mother, Elizabeth; his sister, Kate; and his friends, Luis and Jake. For the majority of the book, the reader is only sure of two facts: Tommy vanished one night from a local landmark called Split Rock, which oddly adopts the name “Devil’s Rock” in the town’s lexicon; and his friends Luis and Jake were present when he disappeared in the Borderland Park where Split Rock is located. Beyond that, the narrative is told over and over again with details added, erased, expanded upon, and changed, throwing a wrench into everything just when we think we have it figured out. The result is a piecemeal discovery, tantalizing in its lack of tangible evidence and its slippery departures from a definable truth.
A scarcity of clues leads to an in-depth study of Tommy’s personality by his loved ones, including careful scrutiny of his diary entries. These show the Tommy that most people knew, a slightly awkward kid who punctuates his friendly conversations with slang like, “hardo,” “chirps!” and “bruh.” But they also reveal an eccentric side that he keeps hidden away: a burgeoning talent for drawing gory images, and an obsessive fixation on “zombie apocalypse” survival scenarios, something that may come from a macabre fascination with his father’s own disappearance and death when he was younger:
He pops into my head at these totally random times. I’ll go days, maybe even weeks, without thinking about him. Then there’ll be days where I’m like totally obsessed with him. I get stuck there sometimes, wondering what he would look like, what he would think of me.
To add to the confusion, reports come in from all over the neighborhood of a dark figure cutting through backyards and staring through windows in the dead of night. Through it all, we see Tommy’s mother and sister as they deal with rumors and revelations, defending him at times and keeping interest in the investigation a public priority. Just when we think that the words of his sister and mother are the only solid voices in the opaque narrative of what really happened that night, Tremblay throws in twists that call their worldview into question. Journal pages of Tommy’s last few days before his disappearance start showing up in the house in providential ways that seem to support a supernatural explanation. The stories of the other boys change with the chronological revelations of the pages. Whispers in the town’s grapevine and on the internet offer an array of plausible solutions, motives, and scenarios, further muddying the investigation. All these factors drive a wedge between Kate, Elizabeth, and Elizabeth’s elderly mother, so that the anxious tension in the Sanderson household practically becomes a character in itself, heavily fueled by the fear of not-knowing, which increases with each passing day.
Disappearance plays heavily into the fear that parents have about the outside world — that it’s a monster capable of consuming fragile children whole, making them vanish without a trace. We see the madness induced by this outcome play out with Elizabeth, who starts to see what she believes are spectral images of Tommy around the house. Having raised her son and daughter alone for most of their lives, she grapples with the not-knowing of Tommy’s loss and the volatile clashes she has with her daughter and her mother, Janice. The most heartbreaking moments in the book occur within Elizabeth’s moments of self-doubt, which she suspects, tragically, may be a sign of insanity:
The noise that comes out of her throat is some ancient and awful involuntary precursor to language and then she says, “Tommy,” repeatedly, and as desperately as an incantation. She scrambles on her hands and knees toward where she saw him a moment ago. She reaches her hand into the space, still saying his name. There’s nothing there.
Tremblay also exhibits an exceptional ability to capture the vulnerability of teenagers and preteens. Plenty of horror novels, movies, comics, and so on feature teenagers coming to grisly fates, but many of these characters are portrayed as idiotic, one-dimensional ciphers who are difficult to sympathize with. Disappearance demands sympathy for its young characters by capitalizing on the very real fear that everyone feels at that age. Most of us have vivid memories of that period of our lives — when we were desperately trying to find our place in a confusing world while our bodies and minds were being racked with radical changes. Tremblay doesn’t need to rely on the lone threat that there may be a boogeyman out there. While the boogeyman may or may not be real, terrifying uncertainty is what motivates the most frightful parts of this book. The struggle of teens to understand the world around them is typically what gives life to urban legends, whispered rumors to account for the strange workings of their landscape. The reader sees this with the quickness in which the local population adopts the “Devil’s Rock” legend, as though a fairy tale is playing out to its logical conclusion instead of a very real missing child investigation, with characters who refuse to abandon Tommy to the pages of local lore.
Tommy’s younger sister Kate is one such character. Throughout the book, she becomes involved in several strange happenings, some of which seem to bear the taint of the supernatural. She is responsible for “finding” Tommy’s journal pages, which include important details about the case, and which “appear” in escalating intervals. She claims to see dark figures in her window in the middle of the night. Even though she demonstrates seemingly healthy communication with her mother and other adults, her theories and discoveries suggest something deceptive or delusional in her behavior, if she isn’t in fact keyed into a supernatural channel. (Readers of Head Full of Ghosts may be reminded of the teenage girl and her sister who deliberately blur the lines between real and unreal in order to create a better story for their reality TV show.) This creates even more tension between Kate and her mother Elizabeth, who now must try to sift the difference between normal preteen misdirection and lies based on fear:
Is she telling the truth? Elizabeth can’t tell. She is speaking carefully, fumbling around for the right words. That isn’t Kate, normally. When she talks, she does so without breathing and impulsively, without thought of consequence. Is Kate making this up or detailing a dream in an attempt to distract and obfuscate?
Kate exemplifies the idea that even in dire circumstances, the actions of teenagers and preteens are still dictated by the fear of an adult world they do not quite understand.
Tremblay heightens suspense and interest by using some of these teenage characters as unreliable narrators. The motives of a young adult to conceal the truth can be based in an innocent kind of fear, wildly attempting to control their world by withholding complicated — and therefore important — information. Startling new facts are revealed in emotionally charged bursts of exposition that might give the reader the same sinking feeling as the adult characters in the book. When Tommy’s journal pages “appear” and reveal a third witness to the disappearance, Tremblay does an excellent job demonstrating the reactions of both sides: the tension and frustration from the adults about the withheld information is palpable, but so is the fearful panic of Tommy’s friends. “I — uh — I didn’t think of him like that,” Luis says to a detective when questioned about an older boy named Arnold who had been hanging around with them at Split Rock.
“Like a friend.”
“So he’s not a friend? What is he then?”
“No, I guess he is. That’s not what I mean …”
“How did you mean it then?”
The result is a story that quickly endears the flawed characters to the reader on a very personal level. Tremblay creates a relation between character and reader that makes fearful misdirection and concealment of facts seem like something we might do in the same situation. Anyone who has been questioned by an adult at a young age can relate to the piercing line of questioning the boys receive and the accompanying feelings that they create. Simultaneously, even people without children of their own can recognize the rising panic that occurs when information left out in naïveté may have drastic repercussions in such a serious situation. Instead of being spoon-fed a dime-store mystery steeped in the usual criminal motivations, Disappearance presents a situation where the motivations of the human heart are not quite so clear.
When Arnold, a mysterious, older stranger, is introduced into the disappearance narrative, the reader follows the emotional plummet along with Elizabeth and every other adult in the book, who of course fear the worst in the most practical — not supernatural — sense. But Arnold himself is a very complex character. It is from him that Split Rock changes its name to “Devil’s Rock,” through an old folk tale he tells the boys about an alleged “ancestor” and the devil, engaged in a battle of wits and trickery. Arnold seems to represent the devil, attempting to lead the young boys astray at this very same location. But Tremblay knows that suspense doesn’t lie in the obvious route. Even though he represents the sum of traditional fears in a disappearance narrative — an adult man who chooses to pal around with young boys — the answer to Tommy’s disappearance is not that simple. Whereas a traditional horror or thriller novel would cast him in the light of the supernatural entity, Arnold’s own mental battle becomes a second battleground for the kind of evil that Disappearance is trying to bring into the light. “Well, he used to be a reverend,” he says of the uncle who raised him. “He was always filling my head with stories about the devil. When I was little, he had me convinced the devil was following me around, that he followed everyone around. […] But now I know. […] That it was all bullshit.”
By the end of the novel, readers will gain their own kind of sympathy for all the characters involved, which must be part of Tremblay’s point. Instead of looking to place blame on end-all, inhuman sources of pure evil, he creates a story where black-and-white rules don’t apply as well as we think they should. It represents his statement on moral ambiguity, that even the worst of us are not all bad, and even the best of us are not all good. The repeated warnings and asides about the devil only reinforce the message that the devil is just that: a myth that, through our own choices and actions, is only as real as we make it. For Disappearance, the devil is there the entire time, his implied presence dripping off every phrase and lurking in the back of the characters’ minds. Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is ultimately a story of the evil that we are all capable of without any help from a fallen angel wielding a pitchfork. One by one, the characters realize that dark impulses are not caught like a disease but lie locked within everyone, just beneath the skin. Tremblay has managed to drill a well deep past the tropes of the horror/suspense genre and into our real fear of the devil: that he is all of us.
Matt E. Lewis is the editor of The Radvocate magazine & co-editor of the horror anthology series States of Terror. He lives in San Diego.