I’m back, back, back again with spooky girls and serious spoilers, but you should journey forward anyway, I promise.
If there is one disturbing thing in Steve Vance’s Spook, it’s on the front cover. Right between the title and the dayglo skull, some overeager marketer decided to add the line, “A Novel of Psychological Suspense.”
I’ve been looking at that line for a week now, and I just don’t understand.
What does “psychological suspense” even mean? Aren’t all horror books psychologically suspenseful? What’s the opposite of “psychological suspense?” Physical suspense? For whom? The characters? The reader? Are they hanging from the ceiling? Or is the opposite emotional suspense? Where the characters don’t know how they feel about anything throughout the whole story until the very end.
Better stop thinking about it. It gets really messy.
Spook begins by introducing us to MaryAnn Nelson, who wears a hood to cover her deformed face and likes to break her mama’s rules by running into the woods in the middle of the night to play with her dogs and maybe rip someone’s head off and throw it in a fire.
She knows she’s bad, but she just can’t help herself. Even when Mama makes her undress, beats her, and chains her to the bed, we know this white haired fifteen-year-old with pointy teeth and lizard skin will probably succumb again.
Next we meet new school district supervisor Dr. Lola Aragon. She’s “tall, fit, an able educator, a not bad gymnast” and she’s ready to whip Georgia into shape.
Her first order of business is to go visit the schools in her district escorted by two sheriff’s deputies. One of these deputies is Ross Walker, a six-foot tall hunk who knows show tunes and smiles amid his beard.
They head to the first school where Lola gets turned on by the deputies’ scared straight presentation to the kids, which includes showing them pictures of needle-sharing AIDs victims. But even though Lola’s impressed with the “surprising number of Hispanics and Asians,” at the school, she’s found a startling truancy issue that she just has to fix.
Turns out little MaryAnn Nelson has never been enrolled in school. Even after being thoroughly briefed by the school and the girl’s doctor that MaryAnn is most likely incapable of being educated and most definitely incapable of winning a beauty contest, Lola decides she must see the girl for herself. After all, just because you look different doesn’t mean you don’t deserve a chance at a normal life, Lola tells everyone who will listen.
There are also a bunch of teenagers. Like, a bunch. In fact, way more than are necessary. The only two you need to remember are the ones who have the most characterization anyway: Fenton Linsday, a bully rich kid looking for a good time, and Roger Casey, a skinny runt who’s into stuff like murdering cows and watching teachers go to the bathroom.
While driving around looking for something to do, this gnarly group come across MaryAnn’s mother, Muriel Nelson. Muriel was once a brilliant artist, but mental health issues and birthing a monster baby have left her grouchy and living on a desolate farm. Even so, Fenton reflects that it was “disturbingly obvious that Mrs. Nelson had been attractive in the past,” which seems like a strange thought for a teenage boy to have, but what do I know?
Muriel’s generally nasty to them, and they’re generally shitty to her, so it’s pretty clear they’ll tango again.
Lola and Deputy Ross (with whom she is now enjoying the sex) head out to meet MaryAnn and her mother. Things don’t go so well.
- Muriel greets them with a shotgun
- MaryAnn–who is locked in her room from the outside–begs not to be taken away from her mother
- There are old school books all over with the faces in every picture marked out.
It’s not long before Muriel runs them off, but not before Lola treats us all to another less-than-subtle conversation about human rights and dignity that includes lines like “She can’t stay hidden in the shadows, like some misbegotten object of divine punishment.”
Somewhere around here we meet a bunch of characters that don’t matter at a bar that really doesn’t need to exist. It’s run by a former prize fighter who is loved by law enforcement and only fights his customers when they deserve it, which is a surprising amount of the time.
Things come to a head when our teenage punks Roger and Fenton decide to pay MaryAnn a visit. After waiting for Muriel to leave, the boys execute the guard dogs and sneak up to the house. But MaryAnn isn’t in the mood for company and tears the teens apart with maybe her teeth and maybe the help of another dog.
Roger, the creepy one, escapes in a van but he crashes it pretty much immediately in a neighbor’s yard. Meanwhile, Muriel comes home and tells MaryAnn to hide in the woods until she can talk to the cops. However, when the cops arrive, they kill Muriel on sight–probably because she was carrying that shot gun again.
The word of mutilated kids crashing vans gets around quick, and soon there is a full-on manhunt for MaryAnn.
Lola is still committed to helping the girl, so she and Ross have sex in the barn and then fall asleep out of the range of his gun. When they come to (surprise) MaryAnn is there in the shadows with the gun. After a tense few minutes and a request to kill her, MaryAnn breaks down and lets Lola hold her, which is when the BIG TWIST is revealed. MaryAnn is actually beautiful.
Turns out her disturbed mother had been putting stage makeup and prosthetics on her (???) to keep people away including MaryAnn’s father who happens to be the doctor that we don’t care about from the beginning of the book.
I was going to write about the absurd dialogue, like when Fenton told Roger to “Go sit on a sharp stick and do three-sixties til your hat flips.” I was going to write about Vance’s wandering POV–which made it impossible to know who was thinking or doing what, like when he writes “a cold wash of air hit him as the door swung open on its hinges.” Did he open the door, or did someone else?
I was going to write about a lot of stuff, but somehow I think you get the gist.
Was Spook fun? Sure. Psychologically suspenseful? Maybe not.