Book: “Ill Will” by Dan Chaon
Publishing Info: Ballantine Books, March 2017
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: “We are always telling a story to ourselves, about ourselves,” Dustin Tillman likes to say. It’s one of the little mantras he shares with his patients, and it’s meant to be reassuring. But what if that story is a lie?
A psychologist in suburban Cleveland, Dustin is drifting through his forties when he hears the news: His adopted brother, Rusty, is being released from prison. Thirty years ago, Rusty received a life sentence for the massacre of Dustin’s parents, aunt, and uncle. The trial came to symbolize the 1980s hysteria over Satanic cults; despite the lack of physical evidence, the jury believed the outlandish accusations Dustin and his cousin made against Rusty. Now, after DNA analysis has overturned the conviction, Dustin braces for a reckoning.
Meanwhile, one of Dustin’s patients gets him deeply engaged in a string of drowning deaths involving drunk college boys. At first Dustin dismisses talk of a serial killer as paranoid thinking, but as he gets wrapped up in their amateur investigation, Dustin starts to believe that there’s more to the deaths than coincidence. Soon he becomes obsessed, crossing all professional boundaries—and putting his own family in harm’s way.
From one of today’s most renowned practitioners of literary suspense, Ill Will is an intimate thriller about the failures of memory and the perils of self-deception. In Dan Chaon’s nimble, chilling prose, the past looms over the present, turning each into a haunted place.
Review: So I grew up in Minnesota and went to college at the University of Minnesota. Around the time that I was in late high school and about to start college, there were whisperings and rumors about a spate of seemingly accidental drownings of college students across the country. One of these students was a U of MN student named Chris Jenkins, who was last seen drunk and kicked out of a bar, before his drowned body was discovered in the Mississippi River. This drowning has been cited in the “Smiley Face Murder” Conspiracy. It’s a theory that these seemingly random drownings of male white co-eds are actually connected to a killer or killers who target them, and then leave Smiley Faced graffiti near the bodies. So when “Ill Will” was coming out and I found out that one aspect of it was this farfetched (but kind of fun) crime theory, I was totally interested. And, even better, the other big theme of this book is the concept of 1980s Satanic Panic. Aka, the conspiracy theory that was red hot in the 80s and speculated that there were millions of Satanists hiding out in America who were sacrificing and abusing children all in the name of the Dark Lord Lucifer. So you get two paranoid and ridiculous conspiracies for the price of one!!!!
“Ill Will” touches on these themes, but it is far more literary and cerebral than I thought it was going to be. We follow the perspectives of a number of people within this damaged family. The first, and foremost, is Dustin, a man who was the star witness against his older, adopted brother Rusty, who was accused of murdering their parents and aunt and uncle in a Satanic rage. Dustin has become a psychologist, who has tried to keep his life together since that horrible night and the trail that followed it. But when his wife is diagnosed with cancer and begins to deteriorate, he becomes fixated on a wild serial killer theory one of his patients presents to him. Next is that of Aaron, the son of Dustin, who, after his mother dies, has found himself left alone with an obsessive and broken father, and he finds solace in drugs and risky behavior. There is Kate, the cousin of Dustin who is feeling guilt for her part in what happened that night and at the trial, and also terrified now that Rusty is out of prison. And then there’s Rusty himself, someone who was a messed up and dangerous teen who then was sent to prison for something he may not have committed. I was expecting a lot of straight forward and linear plot lines, with maybe the two conspiracies coming together. But instead I got an experimental, time and perspective jumping, format changing, meditation on loss, grief, guilt, and mental illness.
Which, in a lot of ways, is a pretty good thing. I think that horror far too often is relegated or expected to fit within straight forward genre fiction. Horror is expected to be mindless, maybe easy, and while not necessarily poorly written (on the contrary, there are lots of horror authors who know how to create wonderful stories and worlds) it is expected to be straight forward and perhaps a bit formulaic. So I like seeing very cerebral and deep works of horror. Chaon unsettles the reader through all of his tricks and devices, from time jumps to strange writing outlines to odd grammatical choices. It was incredibly effective, as the oddness of it all just kind of set me on edge. I think that the problem, however, is that I did sometimes find it a bit confusing, and was more inclined to have to go back and retrace my steps instead of being pulled forward in the story. It’s good to want to have everything straight. But when you have to go back and reread a number of things to totally piece it all together, it can be a bit of a distraction. I found myself vaguely irritated as I jumped back a few times, and while it didn’t stop me from reading it, it definitely felt more like work than leisurely reading.
I think that “Ill Will” is a very thoughtful and detailed read, and I definitely would recommend it to horror fans who like their books intricate and deep. But casual horror fans, you may have a hard time with it. Because I kind of did at times. All that said, I like that it dares to go to those strange and complex places.
Rating 7: Ambitious and unsettling, though at times muddled down by it’s vision, “Ill Will” is a literary horror story that makes us question memory, reality, and hysteria.
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