A psychopathic kidnapper by the name of Barton sets his sights on Billy. In Barton’s twisted mind, Billy is going to be his salvation, his happy family he’s always wanted. Billy is abducted from his home, his family desperate to find him, as Barton tries to convince Billy he is the only family he’ll ever need.
Wow, this book is dark. I read a lot of dark fiction, but there’s something about throwing a kid into the mix that takes it to a whole new level. This was published in 1990, and being that I was seven at the time, I can recall the bombardment of PSAs and after school specials about not talking to strangers, telling your parents when a grown-up approaches you, how to deal with all the various scenarios and everything that could go wrong. This book fits right in with the atmosphere of that time, when parents were learning to lock their doors and watch that guy who’s getting too close. Maybe Strieber was inspired by the surge in interest in educating children about the dangers of the world, but it’s definitely a more adult perspective with some very adult terrors.
The real guts of this story lie with Barton and Billy. Barton’s delusions and mood swings and Billy’s struggles to deal with his situation when he’s really too young to be asked to handle something of this magnitude. I’m not going to pretend a book this tense with this subject matter is for everyone, but if you can handle a thriller where the victim in question is a kid, it’s quite a page turner. For obvious reasons, because you’re not going to be satisfied until you know what happens to Billy, for better or worse. But it also happens to be a thriller that’s fairly well-handled and brings, well, the thrills. So many books in the genre don’t that this one stood out to me as a big victory.
My one complaint would probably be the family. We jump back to them every so often to find out how they’re doing and if they’ve found any new clues about where Billy might be. And the result is the mother completely breaks down and becomes the wretched cliche of the “hysterical woman” that I always hate to see coming in these books. Strieber insists that she’s the rock of this family, the foundation, the sturdy one, as she has one breakdown after another. It’s understandable that a parent faced with this tragedy would be inconsolable, but the number of times that she squared her shoulders and then immediately lost her cool was ludicrous. Show, don’t tell. If she’s strong, then show her being strong. Don’t tell me she is and then contradict yourself.
I admire this story for not pulling a single punch. It goes there. That’s a warning as much as it is praise, but for my part, I like a book that doesn’t flinch. Because it wants me to flinch first.