Paul Tremblay has an impeccable talent for blending difficult real life situations with the paranormal in a way that makes you question whether you’re more afraid of the unknown or of the horrible acts that human beings commit against each other, and Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is another excellent display of that skill. This novel is a psychological thriller with a supernatural twist about a family struggling with the disappearance of their son and brother, 14-year-old Tommy Sanderson.
Tommy leaves for what his mother believes is an ordinary sleepover with his two best friends, Josh and Luis. But in the middle of the night, Elizabeth Sanderson receives a call from Josh stating that her son is missing. It turns out he disappeared during an excursion to Split Rock State Park at the namesake Split Rock itself, which the boys have, for reasons that will be unraveled as the story goes on, taken to calling “Devil’s Rock”.
Throughout the course of the novel, Elizabeth and her daughter Kate struggle not only with the developing missing person case and search for Tommy, but also with some potential supernatural occurrences. Elizabeth thinks she sees a ghostly version of Tommy in her room, mysterious diary pages start appearing seemingly on their own in their living room, and Elizabeth believes she is seeing shadow figures on their motion-activated security camera.
I discovered Disappearance at Devil’s Rock after I read A Head Full of Ghosts by Paul Tremblay and absolutely fell in love with it. If you frequent this blog or have been on my bookstagram at all, you probably already know that I recommend A Head Full of Ghosts all the time and can’t say enough good things about it. Since I loved it so much, I wanted to read more books by Paul Tremblay, and that’s how I discovered this novel, in the hopes that it would be as good as A Head Full of Ghosts.
And I was not disappointed. It was.
To begin with, it’s totally saturated in creepiness. Even in the moments that are not overtly creepy, there’s still a really creepy air about everything as you wonder what exactly is going on, and whether this is something supernatural or the work of a human, or some combination of both. Much like with A Head Full of Ghosts, I was questioning whether or not something paranormal was really happening throughout the book, as well as wondering which would be worse!
Tremblay manages to take the situation of Tommy’s disappearance and make everything about it feel super real and true to life, as if you’re there living it alongside Elizabeth and Kate. Part of this is how real the characters feel, flaws and all. None of them are perfect, and they openly acknowledge this, making them feel so much more like people you would know in real life. They’re just a regular family who have been thrust into an irregular situation, and none of them magically turns into a superhero or anything—they just stumble through it the best they can. They don’t always do the right thing, nor do they always know the right thing to do, and that feels more genuine than a lot of psychological thrillers I read where characters seem to spring into immediate action and transform into some sort of all-knowing creatures, leaving me wondering where on earth they learned how to do this and did they rehearse for this sort of situation or something?
Much like A Head Full of Ghosts, this novel manages to take a good look at how these sorts of tragedies and horrific situations affect the family and impact the delicate family dynamics. We watch as Elizabeth and her daughter Kate fluctuate between each other’s best friends and strongest support team and turning against each other and becoming enemies in their worst moments, and every moment of it is totally believable. The moments where Elizabeth’s mom, Janice, decides to head back home and it feels like an admission of giving up were so believable they were actually cringe-worthy—but not in an “oh, Lord, this is so horribly written” way. Quite the opposite, actually. I was cringing because it was so painfully real. Tremblay really manages to show how the mundane and everyday tasks like feeding the cat and buying groceries permeate our lives and our family’s lives even in the midst of a catastrophe.
“As she types 1% milk and diet soda and 1 lb turkey and cheese and bread she wonders how it was that she got here, to this particular moment; calmly texting a grocery list seconds after shutting off a national cable news show discussing the evils of her missing son.”
I also loved Tremblay’s realistic inclusion of social media and how it affected the case surrounding Tommy, ranging from using Facebook and Twitter as a way to get the word out and seek help, to Elizabeth having to deal with rude comments from strangers composed of barely coherent sentences accusing her of being a bad parent. One of the most perfectly crafted scenes in the book, in my opinion, is when she reads an ignorant comment from a stranger on the Find Tommy Sanderson Facebook page and ponders totally ripping the guy a new one, but settles for criticizing his grammar instead. Between that and lines like, “His picture and a plea for anyone with information to come forward are liked and passed around cyberspace, his face to be forgotten by most, like yesterday’s cat meme”, it pretty solidly sums up the daily modern battle between the Internet being helpful and the Internet being utterly useless.
I really loved about 98% of this book, but I did have a couple slight dislikes, mainly that I questioned some people’s actions and motivations, and whether or not they really aligned with what we knew about the characters so far.
For example, partway through the book, Tommy and his friends are approached by a man in his 20s who starts bringing them beer and hanging out with them out at Split Rock. As you read Tommy’s diary entries and uncover more information about this man, obviously your mind kind of starts churning through what exactly this guy is up to and you go to the obvious scenarios, and while I appreciate a surprise twist, what actually ends up happening isn’t just a surprising twist—it’s completely bizarre and totally off the wall. The older man ends up convincing the three kids to do something, and while it’s probably not what you’re guessing (it’s almost definitely not what you’re guessing), it was less of a “wow, what?” type twist and more of a “wait, what the hell?” I just had no clue how we got from Tommy being a nice kid who loves Minecraft and zombie movies to getting talked into what he did. Even in extenuating circumstances or under the influence of alcohol, it just made no sense to me. Zero sense.
I also wasn’t sure if I believed that the kids wouldn’t tell anyone about what happened afterward. I could absolutely believe that they were terrified and not sure what this guy would do in retaliation, but there were three of them involved, and I found it a little difficult to suspend my disbelief that out of those three, not even ONE of them spoke up, and then even after a traumatic and obviously related event like Tommy’s disappearance, they still didn’t find it relevant to speak up. Even if you’re scared, I would think that the seriousness of being questioned by the cops would flip a switch that would tell you, hey, this is pretty serious, and if I want my friend to be found, I better speak up and help out. So despite the fact that I loved the majority of the book, I didn’t think that part was too great.
Luckily, right after that, the book resumed being amazing! When the boys were describing what happened the night Tommy disappeared, I literally had chills. Between the horror of the human enemy they were faced with and the creepiness of the supernatural elements, I was looking over my shoulder as I was reading. The supernatural parts were subtle enough to not be ridiculous, but overt enough to totally freak me out. Tremblay achieved the perfect balance in that regard.
At the end of the day, despite the few dislikes and kind of “WTF” moments I had with this book, I really, really enjoyed it and would definitely still recommend it! Paul Tremblay’s writing is seriously amazing and I absolutely love it. I also really enjoyed that this novel was a blend of crime/psychological thriller and supernatural elements, and find that combination really compelling. Star-wise, I’d rate it a four and a half out of a five stars.
If you love subtly supernatural novels, psychological thrillers, or if you read A Head Full of Ghosts and enjoyed it, you should definitely pick up Disappearance at Devil’s Rock and give it a read. And then tell me what you think!
So, what about everyone else? Has anyone else read this book? What did you think? Let me know in the comments! You know I’d love to talk. <3