2015 BookPage Summer Reads
The good and useful thing about scary stories is their variety. They may leave you sad, mad or contemplative—but all of the good ones make the hair on the back of your neck stand up.
Not even 40 pages into Sarah Lotz’s latest thriller, Day Four, it becomes clear that when things start going pear-shaped on a cruise, you don’t even need the supernatural to have a good horror story.
The Beautiful Dreamer is the not-quite jewel in the crown of the Foveros Line, which has a reputation for gifting its passengers with norovirus. Passage is cheaper than the going rate, and it shows. We have neon and general garishness, annoyingly chipper cruise directors and staff who are only on the ship because no one else will hire them. The passengers are spoiled, ugly and miserable. Indeed, at least two of them took the cruise with plans to commit suicide.
Then, something happens and the boat is dead in the water. There’s no electricity and no way to call for help. Passengers move to the decks to avoid the stench from the overflowing toilets. Then they start seeing and hearing impossible things. A woman spots a little boy running through the corridors, even though this is an adults-only cruise. A man swears he’s seen the devil. Stress is a perfectly logical explanation, but. . . . Lotz revels in her characters’ discomfort—a beautiful reminder that you don’t have to like a character to care what happens next. But her real genius is putting the action on a crippled, noisome ship that the world seems to have forgotten. The characters, and the reader, want to get off this bucket, but how? It’s worse than being on the Nostromo. And it makes Day Four irresistible.
After reading Paul Tremblay’s mightily disturbing novel, you may wonder why more teenage girls don’t lose their minds. In A Head Full of Ghosts, an exorcist is called in. But the real demons that torture Marjorie Barrett are external.
The story is narrated by Marjorie’s younger sister, Merry, who recounts events of 15 years before. Now 23, Merry blogs about the wildly popular reality show that featured her family. Yes, Marjorie’s suffering was on TV for the world to witness. Why?
First, there’s the patriarchy. In one queasily funny scene, the men who torment Marjorie during her exorcism refuse to believe that she can be possessed by a female demon. Demons are male, and they like to prey on adolescent girls, who in turn need learned male priests to save them.
Second, there’s Marjorie and Merry’s dad. John Barrett is a failure. And not because the family finances were wiped out when his job went away, although money is a big reason for the camera crew. John is a failure because he doesn’t respect the women who love and live with him. He crushes his wife, and he is certainly one reason why Marjorie goes crazy. The only one he doesn’t grind down is Merry, because she’s tough and funny and smart and reminds you of Scout Finch.
But in the end, even Merry has her own demons. What happens to her 8-year-old self is so appalling and unfair that it’s almost unbelievable—a scary story, indeed.