Dude, this book was legit scary. J. Gabriel Gates has seen a lot of horror movies, and committed their key elements to memory. There’s a lot of effective recycling of the kind of tropes that have been so well-used and well loved (hunh. Kind of like a figurative Velveteen Rabbit of horror) that they merit capitalization. And possibly the ™symbol: Twin Girls, Abandoned Mental Hospitals, Creepy Psychologists, a Crazy Southern Lady Living in the Backwoods and seeming pretty much like a Witch, Nightmares, Talking Spirits, Walking Dead, Dark Underground Tunnels, and oh, yeah, The Devil. Gates threw the kitchen sink from hell at this book, and you know, it kinda worked.
Not to sound like a broken record, since my recent review of Leviathan ragged on the book for lack of character development, but The Sleepwalkers commits similar crimes. Caleb Mason is the high school track star/valedictorian who finds he is in over his head when he receives a cryptic letter from his childhood friend, Christine. Christine is one in a set of twin sisters Caleb was good friends with a long time ago, before his parents divorced and his mother moved with Caleb to California. Anna, the other twin, disappeared after accepting Caleb’s dare to go inside the Abandoned Mental Hospital. Children of America, a public service announcement: if your friends ever dare you to go into the Abandoned Mental Hospital, or really, an Abandoned Building of any kind, especially of the kind which is clearly haunted, just don’t do it. If they call you chicken, just nod and smile, and feel the sense of smug satisfaction that comes with having avoided certain torment and death.
Ahem. Caleb’s personality flits between a few states: confusion, brief horniness, and utter terror. We don’t know much about him except that he has a Hero Complex, and he wants to find out what happened to his father. If you’ve been paying attention to stories of any kind for any length of time, you know that when a Young Man with a Hero Complex goes to find his Missing Father in his Forsaken Provincial Hometown, he will find him, and it will be complicated. Caleb is never anything more than a headstrong teen of perhaps above-average intelligence, and the terror I felt in the novel was due to Gates’ excellent descriptions of some truly haunting visuals, and not at all to caring for Caleb. I think I can briefly summarize Christine’s character by naming her The Ambiguously Crazy Girl Who Talks to Dead People.
These days, the Abandoned Mental Hospital is now a Dream Center (wha-wha?), where Creepy Psychologists “evaluate” and, it is implied, abuse Christine against her will on pretenses of treating her for a sleep disorder. Her mom is the Crazy Southern Lady/Witch, so there’s no one to help her. Strangely, since the un-abandoning of the Abandoned Mental Hospital, other people in the town have disappeared without explanation; stranger still, the Police Are No Help™.
It was no surprise to discover that Gates has also written a few screenplays, because his style is very visual, and The Sleepwalkers would be a great B-movie. Granted, the visuals work partly because they’re all things we’ve seen before and can conjure up instantly: “There’s a rocking horse in front of them, its paint peeling off. To the left is a model train half off the tracks, so covered in dust it looks almost white. There’s a mural on the wall, smiling children swinging on swings under a jolly, smiling sun… Some vandal… has spray-painted out the children’s eyes. Red Paint runs down their faces like blood tears.” God help me, I love this kind of crap. My only complaint is that Gates uses present tense prose for the duration of the novel, instead of saving it for tense moments like the one above. I have strong feelings about writers who lean on present tense to maintain tension or create immediacy for more than a scene or two.
There are moments in the first 3/4 of the book when I thought it might really manage to slide right past “Nice!” and go straight to “Awesome!” It doesn’t get there. Half the pleasure of any horror experience (if you ask me, and, hey, if you don’t, why are you here?) is in the unraveling of the mystery behind the horror. Why are people disappearing? Is Christine really crazy? Is her mom really a witch? Is Anna really dead? Who is the Creepy Psychologist and what’s his game? Now, I realize I’ve been praising the novel for using horror tropes well, but I admit my hope was that Gates would, in a twist of genius, sling it all together into something slightly more original in the end. This did not happen. The story behind what’s been going on falls flat not just because it is expected, but also because the backstory itself needs a backstory! There’s a failed attempt at a kind of Keyser Soze explanation, which I can’t really explain without spoilers, which is a shame because it’s not really that much of a spoiler at all.
Short version: if you want a really absorbing read that’s creepy as hell, pick this one up. If you’re looking for something consistently well-crafted and intellectually satisfying, this is not your book. Oh, and it’s definitely a book that is more appropriate for the Adult range in Young Adult. I would say, 12 and up. I can’t imagine kids younger than that being able to handle stuff this scary.
Making December YA Month is working out really well so far. I’m terribly impressed by my own cleverness.