by Daryl Gregory
Cover Artist: Allen Williams
Review by Ernest Lilley
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765376954
Date: 24 March 2015 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Of course Paul Simon's Duncan (1) doesn't go quite like that, but if it was about the residents of the creepy New England town Daryl Gregory brings to life, though life seems too strong a word for the residents, so let's go with being, the song might very well might have.
Sixteen-year-old Harrison Harrison, H2 or Harrison Squared to his marine biologist mother, isn't a New Englander, but after four days of travel in a pickup with four large marine animal tracking buoys in the back and his mom at the wheel, he finds himself in the town that time forgot: Dunnsmouth, MA. Harrison knows that his mom is obsessed with finding a big sea creature, and that she can drop sync on practical daily matters, which is why he insisted on coming along. What he doesn't know is that this isn't just any weird New England town; it's the one his father, mother, and he set sail from when he was an infant on what should have been a three hour trip. A three hour trip.
Letís stop right there for a minute. Okay, "three hour trip" is clearly a nod to Gilligan's Island(2, and that's funny in a pop culture sort of way. Daryl Gregory knows pop culture quite well, in fact he's created more than a bit of it with contributions to comics and manga with Dracula and Planet of the Apes titles, and this book is aimed squarely at a teen audience. Daryl called it 'Cthulhu for Kids'. in a Locus interview. His biggest challenge may have been keeping it from being so scary that it wouldn't keep a "parent (from) picking up a book and thinking it's too scary for their kids."(3)
It is scary. Harrison's mom disappears after another boating accident and the mythical Scrimshander bogeyman, who does intricate carvings on his victims bones, turns out to be not so mythical. And that doesn't even get to the chuthianesque bits. At times, it's almost too scary for adults, and there are some who would otherwise enjoy it that I can't recommend it to. Still, I don't think it's too scary for teens. The teen protagonists quip their way through crises with just enough humor to keep the book from sinking into unrelenting grimness, and besides, kids don't believe horror is actually real if they've only seen it in books and movies. Adults don't have the necessary innocence to disbelieve it.
Back in the book, Harrison is certain that his memory of the accident that took his father is a fantasy built from mundane events; the ship capsizes, his leg gets caught on the boat, his father drowns. But while he may doubt his memory of a sea monster grabbing him, his father tearing him free...and then being taken by its tentacles, we the readers aren't so skeptical.
Dunnsmouth is a dump. They don't have cable, there's no cell signal, and they definitely don't have fun. When Harrison gets dropped off to school, he asks what his schedule is, a question that has no meaning with a junior class small enough that everyone has the same schedule. Still, the teacher in his first class, Practical Skills (or more accurately, how to tie knots in nets) gives Harrison the best piece of advice (short of "get out of town now") he'll get in the entire book. Follow Lydia.
Lydia Palwick is a dour dark haired girl that doesn't seem to like the idea of being followed around, surrounded by her other townees who have all the affect of extras from the Children of the Damned(4) but as time goes on, and bad things happen, Harrison discovers it's not the children he has to worry about, in fact under their grim exteriors, there's a resistance movement going on.
With Harrison's mother missing, his self absorbed Aunt zooms in from Manhattan to do an imitation of a responsible adult. Self absorbed works perfectly for Harrison, who needs to be able to sneak out and scour the town for clues as to the whereabouts of his mother, who he knows is still alive thanks to a note left by another unlikely ally, the boy Lub, who gets mentioned in the author's Novella, We are All Completely Fine.† Lydia and her friends may be on the strange side, but Lub is a whole 'nother level of different, and threatens to steal the scene whenever he's around.
It's a race against time, taken at a plodding pace, as Harrison and his friends try to find his mother before whatever arcane ritual the townsfolk have planned comes to pass. It's a pretty great book, all told.
If you've read We're all Completely Fine(5), which takes place years later and features Harrison Harrison and others touched by the same supernatural horrors in a therapy group, you know a few plot points, but not so much that it will get in your way. What you don't know until the end is that this is only the beginning, but what a very good beginning it is.