Book: “Children of Chicago” by Cynthia Pelayo
Publishing Info: Agora Books, February 2021
Where Did I Get This Book: The library!
Book Description: This horrifying retelling of the Pied Piper fairytale set in present-day Chicago is an edge of your seat, chills up the spine, thrill ride. When Detective Lauren Medina sees the calling card at a murder scene in Chicago’s Humboldt Park neighborhood, she knows the Pied Piper has returned. When another teenager is brutally murdered at the same lagoon where her sister’s body was found floating years before, she is certain that the Pied Piper is not just back, he’s looking for payment he’s owed from her. Lauren’s torn between protecting the city she has sworn to keep safe, and keeping a promise she made long ago with her sister’s murderer. She may have to ruin her life by exposing her secrets and lies to stop the Pied Piper before he collects.
Review: There were, of course, many disappointments that came with the pandemic, and one of the biggest sub groups for me was of the cinematic variety. Not only do I really miss going to the Alamo Drafthouse for throwback movie nights, there were a number of movies I was very excited to see in the theater, that either had to be released on demand, or were bumped back by a year. One of those movies was the reboot of “Candyman”. For the unfamiliar, the premise is that if you say ‘Candyman’ into a mirror five times, he will come out of it and brutally murder you. I really enjoy the original, as not only does it tick my boxes of urban legend based horror and social commentary, it’s also an awesome deep dive into the city of Chicago and all of its darker realities (and seeing that I’m vaxxed now, if the numbers are looking good by the time this new movie comes out, maybe that will be my triumphant return to the movies…. fingers crossed?). Lucky for me, I randomly stumbled upon “Children of Chicago” by Cynthia Pelayo on Twitter, and after looking into it, lo and behold: it’s a horror story in Chicago, involving a mysterious game and the fairy tale of the Pied Piper, the man who steals children away when he isn’t compensated. OH MAN, THIS IS WHAT I WANT IN MY HORROR STORIES!
There are certainly comparisons to be drawn between “Children of Chicago” and “Candyman”, but Pelayo has created a horror story that feels wholly unique because of the themes and twists that she throws into it. The Pied Piper story turned urban legend is a great premise, as the fairy tale on its own is horrifying. When you bring it into a modern setting, and add in elements of “Bloody Mary” like kids games and Slenderman stabbings, it becomes something new and even more sinister. As our protagonist Detective Lauren Medina investigates the deaths of kids in Chicago, we find ourselves in a modern fairy tale with elements that suit both the horror genre and the genre it’s paying homage to. Pelayo has a stellar mystery of what the Pied Piper is, how he connects to Lauren, and how he’s involved in not only the deaths of teens in her jurisdiction, but also that of her younger sister, who was found drowned in a lagoon in Humboldt Park when Lauren was a child. As she investigates and starts to piece together what is going on, the tension builds and the terror creeps up. I loved how Pelayo took the original story and applied it to the present, bringing in modern horrors and anxieties to create something twisted and new. Sometimes things got a bit muddled, or I would feel like it was lagging a bit in terms of pacing, but mostly I was hooked and wanted to keep going.
Pelayo also has a lot of really fun tidbits about Chicago’s history, both that of the innovative and joyful city, and that of the darkness and violence that has plagued it since its inception. I know a little bit about Chicago, given that I’m from the Midwest and it is the biggest city in our region, but I feel like I learned more about it and its history as I read this book. Pelayo has a special focus on the systemic racism that has caused so many problems and damaged so many lives, and how Chicago has a lot of death surrounding it because of its history and because of the ills that still plague it. You get the sense that Pelayo loves Chicago, and wants it to be the best that it can be, while still acknowledging how dark it is in some ways.
But what struck me most about “Children of Chicago” is that our protagonist, Lauren Medina, is not exactly a hero. She carries a lot of baggage from her past, from the disappearance of her mother to the death of her sister, to trying to live up to the Medina name as her father was a highly respected police officer in his own right. There is also the very pesky fact that Lauren has a pretty serious pattern of discharging her weapon on suspects, and while in one case it’s possibly justifiable, in a number of other cases it isn’t. I feel like in cop stories where a cop or detective or what have you is trying to hunt down someone monstrous, more often than not if they ARE a ‘renegade’, it’s portrayed in a way that makes their behavior seem justified (though recently we saw a bit of a challenge to this in Stephen King’s “Later”). Not so in “Children of Chicago”. Lauren is a renegade and it is a serious problem, in that it damages her credibility, it damages the credibility of her department, and it causes damage to innocent peoples lives. It’s just one more layer of darkness to this tale, and getting into the mind of Lauren and peeling back the elements of her character is just as disturbing as some of the other aspects of this book.
Horror fans, you should definitely go read “Children of Chicago”. And I’m on board with whatever Pelayo comes out with next.
Rating 8: Dark and twisted, as well as a biting character study, “Children of Chicago” is a love letter to a complicated city, and an urban legend scary story sure to delight horror fans.
“Children of Chicago” is included on the Goodreads list “2021 Horror Releases”.