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Whisper Down the Lane: Clay McLeod Chapman – a book review

If you’re looking for a strong opening to a horror or thriller novel, you’ll find it here when the main character, Richard, arrives at his work – he’s an art teacher – and discovers a dead body on the soccer field:

“His chest cavity had been carefully cracked open, his rib cage fanning back as if it were the glistening crimson trigger hairs on a Venus flytrap, patiently waiting for its prey to wander inside its gaping maw.”

This novel, first released in 2021, is a psychological thriller inspired by the McMartin preschool trial that took place in the US in the 1980s. Like its real life inspiration, the interviews of children were later criticised as coercive and leading, yet in Chapman’s book, one of the children, only five years old at the time, is blamed for the lies he told about his teacher.

The mother who instigated accusations which led to the McMartin trial was later diagnosed with acute paranoid schizophrenia, and there are strong indications that Sean/Richard’s mother and Richard himself suffer from the same condition. The unreliable narrator in Whisper Down the Lane is compelling, and his break from reality is as chilling as any horror story:

“Mr Dunstan’s song drills into my head. The drone of bees. A whole hive. I can see them pushing against the insides of his cheeks, his face bulging, alive with writhing insects, his mouth full of them, struggling to break free, break free and sing, sing, sing their song for all to hear.”

Even in this single paragraph, as the author moves from two short sentences and a nominal phrase to a fourth sprawling sentence that verges on stream of consciousness, we are shown the fragility of his mind, its tendency to drift and speculate, and terrify itself. In my opinion, this is the strength of this book – its investigation into the human psyche both individual and the equally (if not more) frightening mass hysteria that led to both the real and fictional preschool trials and the wider Satanic panic across the United States.

Yet there are enough clues and prompts to make the reader question whether the narrator is mad or someone is setting him up. This can be dismissed as simple paranoia, but there are frequently “what if” moments that give us pause, allow us to wonder whether at least some of what’s happening isn’t entirely in Richard’s head.

It's an almost perfect horror novel, but the end is disappointing. Personally, I feel it would have been far stronger and more haunting without the inclusion of the expositional letter at the end. That said, at least 90% of this book is a great read, and I’ll be the first to admit that writing endings is f**king hard.

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