When bestselling author Dan Chaon heard about a conspiracy at his sister’s university linking a string of drowning deaths to a serial killer, he scribbled it down in his notebook and let it simmer—for 10 years. “I kept trying to figure out a way to go back to it,” says Chaon. “And then eventually that image of [a] kid floating down the river kept coming back to me, and I finally started to figure out how I could approach it without turning it into a straight-up procedural.” While there is a sinister presence lurking behind the string of drownings in his latest—and most chilling—novel Ill Will, Chaon, a virtuoso of mind-bending literary horror, also reveals a deeper, menacing story that’s slowly uncoiling on the periphery.
A recurring motif that serves as the swelling tension beneath most of Chaon’s work, grief weighs heavy on each character in his third novel, particularly Chaon’s two hapless narrators: Dustin Tillman, a psychologist in Cleveland who, plagued by the recent death of his wife, can’t seem to resist his delusions while he clings to the past; and Dustin’s youngest son, Aaron, your typical moody teenager, except add a harrowing drug addiction. Both characters have been unmoored by death yet they’re both drawn to their own inexorable doom, “that sensation of being watched by someone you don’t know. The feeling that a hidden presence is nearby while your eyes are closed, observing, leaning closer, emanating ill will.”
Chaon, whose wife, the writer Sheila Schwartz, died in 2008 from cancer, is no stranger to the bewilderment that accompanies loss, and he admits that, in a sense, writing from Dustin’s point of view was strangely cathartic. “I guess it was one way for me to write about that stuff in a way that felt like putting it into the life of somebody who was not me,” he explains. “It kind of allowed me to look at it in a way that felt like it was true to the kind of screaminess of the grief without me being melodramatic about it.”
From the novel’s outset, Dustin travels into uncharted territory with one his patients—a distressingly shady character—and subsequently finds himself entrenched in an investigation into a suspicious pattern of drowning deaths. To further complicate things, Dustin’s adopted brother, Rusty, has just been exonerated after spending 30 years in prison and, unbeknownst to Dustin, has been in regular contact with Aaron.
Via a progression of flashbacks, narrated by Dustin, we learn that, in the midst of the Satanic Panic in 1983, Rusty was sentenced to prison for the senseless murder of their parents, aunt, and uncle, a conviction largely based off of Dustin’s so-called repressed memories of a satanic ritual that Rusty had supposedly performed before the execution. Growing up in middle America, Chaon was more than familiar with this sweeping hysteria that took hold of America in the 80s.
Chaon grew up in Nebraska. “There was definitely a time when pastors in our town would talk about, ‘Yes, there are Satanists in the town; they are sacrificing in the graveyard!’ ” Chaon recalls. “All of that stuff was totally believed.”
But as Dustin continues to conjure up his past, his recollections deteriorate into disjointed lines of thought; the truth becomes muddled; and his capricious psychological state comes searingly into focus. Filtering the story through two vastly different perspectives, Chaon was interested in exploring character entrapment, and, in turn, examining the ways in which belief alters reality. “We can believe ourselves into these incredible feats of self-deception,” Chaon says. “Just that idea of somebody who’s basically decent, but also doomed by their own lack of self-awareness. I think that’s something that’s very terrifying because I think all of us are kind of afraid that we’re not as self-aware as we’d like to be.”
Stephanie Buschardt is an editorial assistant at Kirkus Reviews.