Written by: Josh Black
It’s October of 1993 in Harting Farms, MD, when the first body is found. Following this grisly discovery is a slew of missing children, their fates soon attributed to an enigma known as The Piper. The police seem to be at a loss for leads, and a tight-knit group of teenage boys ends up taking matters into their own hands. December Park is their story.
As Malfi says in the acknowledgments, “Any writer worth their salt has inside them at least one good book about their childhood. This one is mine.” So although the dual investigations of the police and the boys serve as the story’s core, from there it branches out and, over the course of its considerable length, touches on some universal staples of adolescence – the fears, the insecurities, the primal fistfights and the family drama and the awkward attempts at romance. The ubiquitous shadow of the Piper adds to the gravitas inherent in all of these things, and the atmosphere is stifling.
It’s a dark book to be sure, but the darkness is leavened by the relationship between the five main characters. Each has a distinct personality and, although not all are as nuanced as they could have been, they’re all likable in their own way. As focused as December Park is on character, the plot is somewhat languid for much of the book. It’s more an extended literary slice of life piece than a standard horror novel, and at times it seems to suffer for it. “Seems” is the operative word. There’s some repetition and some drawn out segments that feel superfluous, but by the final page it’s apparent that this “more is more” approach was very much intentional, and in the end the characters feel almost like old friends we’ve just caught up with for a while. It’s a bittersweet feeling to close the book and let them go.
The settings are impressive as well. There are some brilliantly constructed set pieces here that, when they show up, serve as the backdrop for mini-horror-stories themselves. An underground tunnel, an old and decrepit house, the haunting burned-out shell of a former school that’s described in dream-like terms (it’s nearly a mirror image of the school the boys attend). It’s a beautifully written book all around, but these are the parts where Malfi’s gift for language shines brightest.
As darkly beautiful as the writing is, more than a little suspension of disbelief is required to accept that the friends’ investigation would go on as long as it does. They withhold obvious evidence from the police and put their lives in extreme danger in the process. The police overlook some glaring things too. It’s easy enough to accept these things, as everything else about the novel is done so well. It’s a consistently engaging read, and one that should have you turning the pages long into the night.
This is indeed a great book about childhood. Malfi’s at the top of his game, and December Park is a must-have for horror readers. Highly recommended.