What begins as a spooky tale of serial murder evolves into something much stranger and riskier—an eschatological fable about innocence, evil and personal responsibility.
Seven years ago, John Morrison covered up the killing of Mark Wilkinson. The boy had walked into the poisoned woods surrounding Innertown, the English hamlet blasted by the mysterious but baleful chemicals produced by the Consortium, and disappeared. Morrison soon found what had happened to Mark: He’d been ritualistically slain and hung from a tree. Dumbfounded and overwhelmed, Morrison reported the incident to Brian Smith, the city father who’d promoted him from night watchman of the Homeland Peninsula Company to town constable, and then watched Jenner, Smith’s fixer, hide the corpse and spread a story of how the boy had run off to join the circus. That story is getting a little thin now that four other boys have vanished in the woods at roughly 18-month intervals, but Morrison feels locked into his lie and helpless to prevent further outrages. So it falls to someone else to take action: the school friends of the missing children. Under the leadership of sadistic Jimmy van Doren, they’re ready to rock. Although successive chapters bounce from one character’s point of view to another, the leading role falls to Leonard Wilson, the thoughtful boy who’s taken up with both Elspeth, Jimmy’s forthright ex-girlfriend, and Eddie, a female member of Jimmy’s gang. But although Leonard is given more air time than any supporting player, his fears and feelings are much more definite than he is. Burnside (The Devil’s Footprints, 2008, etc.) uses plot, character and mystery only as gambits to launch his spiritual exploration of the horrifyingly thin line between childhood innocence and sociopathic amorality, and ultimately between sins of commission like serial murder and sins of omission like serial cowardice.
A truly unusual experience awaits readers willing to forgo the obvious pleasures of the genre.