Scary stories have a vibe. When they work, they wake up a place deep inside, tingle parts of your brain that you know are there, but to which you don’t pay attention. They unnerve and they challenge. At their best, they make you believe in monsters. Even at their worst, they provide an escape. The question is whether or not the escape is worth the trip.
As Bad Things begins, John Henderson lives a mundane life as a waiter, divorced, detached and hiding away from the pain caused by his four-year-old son’s inexplicable death three years earlier. At his old lakeside house in Black Ridge, Washington, John stood on the jetty and watched his son fall into the water. A look of sorrow and fear had covered his little face. He told his daddy to run. And he fell.
Though neither the fall nor the water killed him, the coroner later said, the boy just died.
Now living in Oregon and working as a waiter, John has started to settle into a quieter life. A single email draws his attention back to Black Ridge, back to the old house, back to a town where feuds, persecution, and secrets envelope the lives of everyone under the blanket of one oppressive force. "I know what happened."
Though the hook reads like a teaser for a made-for-TV flick, author Michael Marshall raises Bad Things from the mire with comfortable, easy prose, mostly through the eyes of his protagonist. The narrative never gains enough momentum to sever its weak ties with that unfortunate stigma, but thankfully, it never suffers too poorly either.
John’s narrative unfolds in a conversational tone. I hate attaching Hollywood personalities with characters in a novel — it somehow cheapens the author’s imagination — but I could not stop hearing Tom Selleck’s voice as John told me his story.
Though Marshall has created a somewhat flat protagonist, he does a fine job of sliding plot revelations under your nose with nary a wink, daring you to notice. A subplot involving a co-worker’s slacker boyfriend yields one nice character touch for John, but allows some predictable moments to work their way in as well. The most glaring flaw in the writing involves the aphorisms sprinkled throughout the text — little sayings that tend to distract rather than move the plot along. At 371 pages, the book doesn’t run too long but the pontificating wordiness dulls the edge of an otherwise satisfying suspense.
Despite its flaws, this book knows how to tighten your innards. Marshall anchors your sympathy with his characters, and then unravels them in subtle ways with every turn of the screw. Only a handful of times does Marshall resort to cliffhanging his chapters to garner your continued interest — most of time, he renders a thematic premise that earns your empathy, and twists it under psychological affliction. Unfortunately, it also borders on pretense.
By the turn of the final page, there’s enough dangling threads and logic errors that tatter the effort that went into spinning what should have been a more emotionally charged yarn. Marshall plants an early set up, for instance, allowing John to tell us about his unbelief in any higher ordained order, obviously a clue to the audience that the story will challenge these beliefs. John’s journey, unfortunately, never reaches a full pay off; he’s challenged, but the jury should not have to hang itself over whether or not he’s changed.
Bad Things suffers most under the poor execution of a promising premise. The implications raised by the story would have made for some truly unsettling moments and revelations, but the narrative, while it succeeds in building suspense, never works up the courage to challenge the reader.