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Onyx reviews: Disappearance at Devil's Rock by Paul Tremblay

Reviewed by Bev Vincent, 8/6/2016

A group of young boys is hanging out one night when one of their number goes missing. His disappearance stresses out his single mother and sibling, and upsets the normally quiet and peaceful community. That may sound like a summary of Stranger Things, the popular Netflix series, but it also describes Disappearance at Devil's Rock, the follow-up to Tremblay's award-winning A Head Full of Ghosts.

Unlike Stranger Things, Disappearance is not a nostalgia-filled story set in the eighties. It is a contemporary story that involves Twitter hashtags, Facebook pages, YouTube videos, trollish comments and SnapChat conversations, all of which come into play after 13-year-old Tommy Sanderson goes missing during a late-night adventure in the ominously named Borderland state park in Ames, Massachusetts. Tommy is a good kid, quiet and sensitive, a budding artist who is obsessed with playing Minecraft, deliberately crashing his bicycle and arguing with his friends Luis and Josh about the best ways to survive the zombie apocalypse.

The story starts with the dreaded middle-of-the-night phone call that informs Elizabeth that her son is missing. Elizabeth isn't a stranger to crisis; her husband also pulled a vanishing act many years ago, and then topped it off by getting killed in a DUI car wreck. Their father was not a large part of Tommy and his younger sister Kate's lives, but recently Tommy has been interested in finding out more about the man.

Tremblay understands that it doesn't take a lot to create a sense of unease. Elizabeth has a late-night encounter with a phantom apparition in her son's bedroom that causes her to believe that he might already be dead, but of course no one takes her seriously. Harder to dispute are the pages from Tommy's heretofore unknown diary that materialize a few sheets at a time in the living room in the middle of the night. Elizabeth, Kate, and Elizabeth's mother, who is staying with them to lend moral support during this difficult time, all deny any knowledge or responsibility for dropping these increasingly disturbing pages, which doesn't leave many options. Either someone is breaking into the house and leaving them for Elizabeth—but for what purpose?—or Tommy's spirit is leaving them.

The most disturbing revelation in these pages is the fact that Tommy and his friends have been spending time with a fourth individual, a man a decade their senior who they met at a local convenience store. This Arnold, a charismatic who claims to be a seer, convinces the boys of his abilities by revealing things about their lives he should have no way of knowing, although Luis suspects that he's using the traditional psychic method of issuing general statements and pouncing on the mark's reaction. He supplies them with beer as he tells them a legend about Split Rock, the remote geological artifact in the park where they like to hang out, that fuels their imaginations.

Tommy's disappearance kicks off a media and social networking frenzy. Elizabeth works hard to make sure that #FindTommy keeps trending on Twitter and updates a dedicated Facebook page with every scrap of new information, no matter how trivial. Rumors abound, including theories that the boys were involved in devil worship. Reports of a shadowy figure seen lurking in people's yards create a Slenderman-like legend. As the days pass without any credible sightings of the missing boy, though, Elizabeth finds it increasingly difficult to keep the public, the media and the police interested in her situation. Tensions rise in the Sanderson household, too, as recriminations and accusations bubble to the surface between mother and daughter. 

One open question is the reliability of the various narratives presented in the book. Tommy is never seen before his disappearance, so Elizabeth and readers have only his written words and the testimonies of Luis and Josh to rely upon. The mysterious Arnold, too, is only seen through the boys' accounts of their interactions until late in the book, and the boys, as it turns out, have good reason to obfuscate and dissemble. The novel shares a theme with You Will Know Me by Megan Abbott: how much or how little of their children's lives adults truly know or understand.

There are other mysterious incidents, including the possibility that a doppleganger exists, and a hint that Tommy foresaw what was going to happen at the park that night. The final set of diary pages, discovered well after the source of the previous pages has been revealed, tell a harrowing story about the events that led up to Tommy's disappearance. The boys' actions are a little hard to accept, given what readers know of them up to that point, but if readers are willing to look beyond this shaky credibility, the rest of the book holds together fairly well. 

Arnold, once he enters the pages as a character, is vastly different than the glib, slick, savvy depiction from the boys' point of view, perhaps because the youths are more susceptible to his manipulations. Again, though, readers and Elizabeth are forced to rely upon the questionable testimonies of people who have much to gain by hiding the truth, so what really happened in the park that night might never be known. 

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