If you aren’t sure what kind of experience you’ll be getting when you crack open Whisper Down the Lane, the first chapter will cast aside any uncertainty. Within just a few pages you’ll have gotten enough shocking violence, overwhelming fear and psychological intrigue to keep you hooked for hours.
Inspired in part by the real-life McMartin preschool trial—in which members of the McMartin family who operated a preschool in Manhattan Beach, California, were charged with sexual abuse of children, which in turn gave rise to a national panic over satanic ritual abuse—the novel follows similar circumstances, although in a highly fictionalized way. Author Clay McLeod Chapman alternates chapters from the perspectives of Sean, a kindergartener in 1983 Greenfield, Virginia, and Richard, a teacher living 30 years later in Danvers, Virginia, where he and his wife are raising his stepson, Elijah. As you might expect, their stories are inextricably linked, and everything starts when Sean, influenced by his mother’s paranoia, tells a lie that will change his entire world.
Part of the novel’s chilling effectiveness comes from its portrayal of the detectives assigned to Sean’s case and how their leading questions ultimately result in Sean saying what they want him to say, resulting in the unfair and undeserved persecution of Sean’s teacher on suspected sexual offenses. Chapman pulls no punches, revealing how the simplest of misrepresentations can result in a sort of mass hysteria against someone, just as it did in the real-life McMartin era.
Sean changed his name when he grew older to put his past behind him, but now, as Richard, he is haunted by his past lies and the psychological fallout of those lies. When his school’s rabbit mascot is found brutally slain on the soccer field, it sets off a thrilling chain of events that sets his past and present on a collision course.
While most of the novel is enmeshed in psychological thrills and foreboding, its depictions of ritualistic animal slayings are graphic, unnerving and not for the easily squeamish. The contrast between grim unease and startling violence only serves to heighten the chills. Chapman, who ironically writes both children’s books and horror novels, combines the two mediums in masterful style, just as a certain Maine-based author does with his horror novels.