Book: “Whisper Down the Lane” by Clay McLeod Chapman
Publishing Info: Quirk Books, April 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: I was sent an eARC by the publisher via NetGalley.
Book Description: Inspired by the McMartin preschool trials and the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, the critically acclaimed author of The Remaking delivers another pulse pounding, true-crime-based horror novel.
Richard doesn’t have a past. For him, there is only the present: a new marriage to Tamara, a first chance at fatherhood to her son Elijah, and a quiet but pleasant life as an art teacher at Elijah’s elementary school in Danvers, Virginia. Then the body of a rabbit, ritualistically murdered, appears on the school grounds with a birthday card for Richard tucked beneath it. Richard doesn’t have a birthday—but Sean does . . .
Sean is a five-year-old boy who has just moved to Greenfield, Virginia, with his mother. Like most mothers of the 1980s, she’s worried about bills, childcare, putting food on the table . . . and an encroaching threat to American life that can take the face of anyone: a politician, a friendly neighbor, or even a teacher. When Sean’s school sends a letter to the parents revealing that Sean’s favorite teacher is under investigation, a white lie from Sean lights a fire that engulfs the entire nation—and Sean and his mother are left holding the match.
Now, thirty years later, someone is here to remind Richard that they remember what Sean did. And though Sean doesn’t exist anymore, someone needs to pay the price for his lies.
Review: Thank you to Quirk Books for sending me an eARC via NetGalley!
As a person who has very, shall we say, passionate feelings about certain topics, there are a few subjects that will send me off on rants, be they happy or angry or what have you. One of those topics that is of the ‘angry’ variety is that of Satanic Panic, a period in American History during the 1980s and early 1990s in which people started to believe that there were hidden Satanists all over who wanted nothing more than to molest children and sacrifice them and do other things horrible things all to please Satan. This led to a hysteria fueled by Evangelicals, unethical psychologists, manipulated testimonials, and daytime talk show hosts, and in turn led to a lot of people being unfairly accused of horrific things that didn’t happen, and it wrecked peoples lives. It is a subject that makes my blood boil (and it sure doesn’t help that with the rise of QAnon we are starting to see a new breed of secret Satan conspiracy theories in real time). This brings me to “Whisper Down the Lane” by Clay McLeod Chapman, which takes the infamous McMartin Preschool Trials and makes a novel about a man who, when he was a child, told lies about his Kindergarten teacher, and is now as an adult having lies told about him. I steeled myself, ready to be pissed as hell as I read. And reader, boy was I.
As “Whisper Down the Lane” is probably supposed to get you riled up, as a story it works. BOY does it work. We get to see a frustrating and also unsettling narrative about Richard, who has tried to forget that he is actually Sean, a boy who told many awful lies about his Kindergarten teacher Mr. Woodhouse, because he liked the attention and because he thought that he was doing what his mother wanted. The mystery of who has started stalking Richard as an adult and has started to try to ruin his life in the same way he ruined Mr. Woodhouse’s is a promising and enticing storyline, as the question is is someone after him, or is this a manifestation of his own repressed guilt? This in turn leads to some very creepy moments, and it also does a fantastic and cathartic dressing down of Satanic Panic and how it preyed upon the misguided fears of a lot of people, and in turn did a lot of damage. Instead of portraying Richard’s/Sean’s mom as a zealous true believer, we got to see a fairly normal single mother with understandable anxieties swept up into something that is untrue, as it take advantage of those anxieties. I didn’t LIKE her as a character, but I don’t think you are supposed to. But I also liked that Chapman gave her some grace, showing that it was this horror of something happening to her son, and then the horror realizing that something HADN’T, that had some tragic fallout. Chapman does draw some really insightful parallels to Satanic Panic of the 80s and the whackadoo and dangerous conspiracy theories that we are seeing today (not just Q shit but also School Shooting False Flag shit).
But there was a big issue I had with “Whisper Down the Lane”. The same grace that is afforded to his mother isn’t REALLY afforded to Richard/Sean. One of the really awful things about Satanic Panic (in a real soup of MANY AWFUL THINGS) is that this strange obsession with Satanists preying upon children in turn led to many children being manipulated to not only tell lies, but also to start believing the lies that some really HORRIFIC things happened to them. While Richard’s/Sean’s actions absolutely fueled what ultimately happens to Mr. Woodhouse, I don’t feel like enough attention and culpability was put upon the adults who fed him that narrative. Sure, that means his Mom, a bit anyway, but what about the authorities? What about the crackpot psychologist who bullies him into lying in the first place (these were the worst parts for me, the transcripts of the interviews)? What about the talk show host who propped him up AS A CHILD as an arbiter or truth and justice and added even more lies into it? While we feel a true amount of anger towards them, I felt that there was definitely too much of Richard blaming himself, with no pushback against that thinking whatsoever. I don’t need a long and winding speech about ‘you were just a child, Sean!’. But I also don’t want to see that perfectly reasonable ‘you were LITERALLY FIVE’ argument be tossed aside as not good enough. It just felt a little too much like ‘and now you’re getting some just desserts’ in a situation where just desserts shouldn’t be sent his way. At least not to the extent they are. And had I not been able to see where this entire thing was going from pretty early on, this may have been a little forgivable. But the mystery itself wasn’t that shocking or surprising. True, some red herrings get thrown in here and there, but they weren’t explored enough to make me feel like they were actual contenders for a solution.
In some ways “Whisper Down the Lane” missed the mark for me. It’s very possible it is because this is a topic that really touches a nerve for me, so I don’t necessarily want people to write it off. As an examination the horrible things Satanic Panic did, it’s very effective. I just wish it had been a little more discerning in where to place the lion’s share of blame, because as it it feels more like a morality tale than the multi layered tragedy it could have been.
Rating 6: A lot of promise, but a somewhat obvious solution and misdirected blame made “Whisper Down the Lane” a bit of let down for me.