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Onyx reviews: Ill Will by Dan Chaon

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 2/25/2017

When Dan Chaon (pronounced "shawn") wrote about how willing people were to believe a conspiracy theory in the 1980s in which throngs of highly organized and interconnected Satanic cults across America and around the world were suspected of committing ritual abuse, it might have seemed easy to poke fun at gullible, poorly informed people living in a simpler time. Evening news programs took these rumors seriously, running special segments with titles like Exposing Satan's Underground, theorizing about a link to heavy metal music. Police departments formed cult task forces. Events in the short time since Chaon penned those passages make it easier to understand how people can be swayed by conspiracy theories.

The Satanic Ritual Abuse (SRA) mania was going strong when 13-year-old Dustin Tillman's parents, his aunt and his uncle were murdered the night before the the two families were about to embark on vacation. Dustin and his two 17-year-old twin cousins, Kate and Wave, spent the night in the camper in the driveway. A news photographer won a Pulitzer for photos of the three teens the next day shortly after they discovered the murders that had happened inside the house while they slept.

Absent that night was nineteen-year-old Russell, Dustin's adopted older brother. When Dustin's father received a large settlement after a worksite accident that left him with a hook in place of one hand, he decided to foster a child as a way of keeping one boy from suffering the kinds of indignities he had as a child. 

Dustin was a particularly gullible child. Kate and Wave used to have fun implanting false memories to see what they could get him to believe. After the murders, Kate and Dustin become convinced that Russell (Rusty) was the murderer, and they compare notes to come up with a credible story that involves Rusty's bullying behavior, his fascination with Satanism, the fact that he liked to torture and kill animals, and the suspicion that he had been responsible for his birth parents' death in a house fire. One of the book's main questions is whether Dustin's testimony was true or if it relied on more false memories. Either way, Rusty was convicted and sent to prison. Dustin has not spoken with him since.

Nearly thirty years later, Dustin receives word from Kate that Rusty has been exonerated by Project Innocence. No one else is implicated, but this news disturbs Dustin. He is now 41, a therapist, married with two teen sons, the younger of whom is a drug addict, unbeknownst to Dustin. His wife is dying of cancer. He is a vague, diffident man, prone to leaving sentences unfinished or groping for words. He recently quit smoking and is suffering an existential dread that the world is emanating ill will toward him.

The murders are, understandably, a seminal event in his life. His doctoral thesis explored the SRA phenomenon. His wife's illness and subsequent death unpin him, and the news about Rusty sends him into a spin. He is certain Rusty will come after him, seeking vengeance for all those lost years. He doesn't know that Rusty is already in touch with his vulnerable 18-year-old son, Aaron.

Dustin specializes in hypnotherapy, which he uses primarily as a quit-smoking treatment or to alleviate idiopathic pain. His newest client, Aqil Ozorowski, a cop on medical leave for reasons he won't divulge, is convinced that a serial killer has been preying on young men thought to have drowned after binge drinking. He lays out his evidence, identifying numerological details that seem to tie these deaths together. Eventually, he proposes that Satanists are involved, which naturally piques Dustin's interest and helps to penetrate his skepticism. Aqil is intense, and his demands on Dustin push the limits of the patient-client relationship. 

The novel leaps around in time, gradually divulging more about what happened between Dustin and Rusty in the late 1970s. It also follows several characters, including Aaron's misadventures in some of Cleveland's seedier neighborhoods with his friend Rabbit, who may be another victim of Aqil's putative serial killer. At times, the narrative is split into multiple parallel threads, streaming beside each other down the page like adjacent stories in a newspaper. This is mildly distracting but occasionally effective, especially when different perspectives on the same event are shown side-by-side.

What is the truth about those long-ago murders? Dustin's cousin Wave, who has gone off the grid and is no longer in touch with the family, might know. Is it within Dustin to dig past a cloud of possibly false memories and get to the bottom of what actually happened nearly thirty years ago? The epigraph Chaon selects to precede one of the book's chapters advises: "In the end it is the mystery that lasts and not the explanation." There are no easy answers to the conundrum of memory.

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