Clay McLeod Chapman has a knack for reimagining past horrors. In his 2019 novel, The Remaking, he turned his eye toward the murder of a mother and daughter who were accused of witchcraft in the early 20th century. Now with Whisper Down the Lane, his captivating and terrifying follow-up, Chapman focuses on two other true-life events, the McMartin preschool trials and the consequential beginning of the “satanic panic” era of the 1980s.
Chapman structures Whisper Down the Lane around back-and-forth narratives. The first, set in 2013 and told in the first-person point of view, follows a 30-something man named Richard who lives in the affluent town of Danvers, Virginia, with his wife, Tamara, and his stepson, Elijah. Richard teaches art at the local school and seems to be on track for a comfortable, easy-going adulthood. However, the sudden “ritualistic” murder of a rabbit on school grounds causes Richard to grow increasingly unstable, and his secretive, once dormant past slowly begins to rear its ugly head.
The other narrative, told in the more distanced third-person point of view and set in the 1980s, revolves around the childhood of a young boy named Sean who, along with his mother, hopes for a “fresh start” after moving towns. Unfortunately, these hopes die not long after Sean enrolls at a new school. When Sean comes home one day, his mother discovers bruises on his body. Sean wants to tell her the truth: “He wanted to tell her. He really did. But there was something about the sound of his mother’s voice that worried him. An elevation in her pitch. It sounded, urgent, like she was worried. Scared, even.”
Sean’s own fears in upsetting his mother — in disappointing her, in causing her any trouble at all — lead him to tell a lie about his favorite teacher, Mr. Woodhouse. This lie catches fire and burns through Sean’s home, school, community, and beyond.
The stories of Richard and Sean eventually converge, and while the way they intersect is not all that surprising, it’s still incredibly satisfying to experience. Chapman remains sharply focused throughout, with the two narratives playing off each other with rapid-fire movement, allowing for layers of mystery to develop beneath each character’s respective arc.
Readers should know that Whisper Down the Lane isn’t a novel posing as a horror novel; it earns its badge of horror proudly — with blood and chills aplenty. In fact, one of the great successes of Chapman’s novel is how utterly terrifying it is. Whisper Down the Lane is so scary because the terror pulsing throughout its veins is real. We don’t have to imagine the monsters in the corner or under the bed because the monsters within these pages are ourselves — our friends, our family members.
One of the big thematic explorations of the novel is how false storytelling can hold just as much power as stories rooted in truth. For example, Sean’s lie explodes, and it does so because of the heightened anxiety and paranoia already in place. Not only is a successful, beloved teacher accused of partaking (in his classroom during school hours) of ritual abuses and satanic sacrifices, but many people believe the accusation. They need to believe it because their fear drives them to accept this version of their own altered reality. As one character says near the end, “People will believe anything when they’re afraid.”
If Chapman doesn’t fulfill the fear quota with his exploration of false storytelling, anxiety, and paranoia, his constant reminders of the power of the past should do the trick. Richard says it best when he coldly admits, “The past is never through with us.”
And maybe it’s not; maybe it’s just waiting, hiding in the dark.
Bradley Sides‘ debut collection of short stories, Those Fantastic Lives, is forthcoming from City of Light Publishing in 2021. On most days, he can be found teaching creative writing and English in southern Tennessee.
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