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The Disappearance / Bentley Little

Signet / September 2010
Reviewed by: Daniel R. Robichaud

Bentley Little's latest excursion into terror fiction delivers creepy thrills and unexpected twists as a group of adventurous college students find themselves victims of strange circumstances.

Before beginning another year at UCLA, Gary and his friends head into Nevada's Black Rock Desert for the Burning Man project. They expect a fun excursion at the week-long festival. Instead, mystery cuts their pleasure short. Waking from a surprise drugging, the friends find one of their number has disappeared. At first, they suspect Gary's girlfriend Joan has just wandered off. When this proves not to be the case, suspicions take a darker turn: Perhaps she has been taken against her will.

The local sheriff's department is no help. Officially, missing persons cannot be reported for 48 hours. In the end, Gary's friends convince him to return to Los Angeles, in the hope that Joan might have somehow made it back there.

Joan is not waiting for them. In fact, her dorm roommate has also vanished. Involving the LAPD reveals even odder turns: there are no school records, no DMV files, no social security information, no documentation for either of the disappeared girls.

Gary cannot stop searching for answers behind Joan's disappearance. His near-obsessive struggles to understand how someone can suddenly cease to exist brings troubles aplenty. Soon the friends face dangers beyond their expectation or experience.

Bentley Little's fiction is often at its best when it quirks normal situations by introducing elements that are both oddly funny yet chilling. Novels like The Store, The Ignored, University, and Dispatch (as well as stories such as "The Washingtonians" and "The Wheel") use surreal and satiric terrors to create engaging fiction often unlike anything else in the mass market. The Disappearance's opening half channels the bizarre and the unexpected. The deepening mystery starts strong and grows increasingly intriguing, hinting at either real world or supernatural conspiracies. The book seduces its reader through disparate clues.

However, The Disappearance's narrative is not a single-minded tale of horrific uncertainty. When the novel hits its second half, the mystery is quickly resolved. At this point, it leaves behind the ambiguous horror of its beginning and marches into thriller territory, where it remains through the close. The protagonists become increasingly more active, as they explore their discovery and its macabre implications.

The result is a book with distinctly different moods. This reviewer found the opening half incredibly effective. Little possesses extraordinary skill at imbuing the mundane with menace. Strangely dressed figures skulking across a college campus, a scroll begging protection from someone or something called "The Outsiders", a phone book containing entries identified by role instead of name, and authority figures hiding possibly sinister motivations provide the basis for some surreal but gripping chills.

While the latter half provides violent, thoughtful, page-turning action, once the novel shifts its focus from horror story to straight-forward thriller, readers may find themselves losing some of interest. This is not due to the actual writing; Little's prose remains engaging throughout, as immersive as Richard Laymon's best works. This reviewer’s lessened interest was due more to plotting that relies on overly familiar thriller tropes and expectations. That said, well-developed characters can hold readers' attentions despite almost any plotting decisions, and enough interesting personalities occupy this work to keep even jaded thriller readers going.

The characters Little employs are especially interesting. The college kid-heavy cast calls to mind many, many horror flicks and suggests this book might be a sadistic tale of slashers and sex. Instead of playing to this expectation, Little's cast serves a different purpose. They are old enough to know a thing or two about the world, but they are not so old as to be fully trusting with or entrusted by The System. Experience changes them, clarifying the novel's curiously schizophrenic structure.

In the beginning, the characters are beset by an apparently hostile world; threats arise from any direction (particularly from adult sources). Over the course of the novel, Gary and his friends mature into active parts in the world, ultimately shaping events instead of being continually pushed, pulled, or shaped by them. This is clearly coming of age material.

The Disappearance marks a welcome turn in Little's impressive catalog, diverging from the grim-but-gleeful horror stories of his previous works. It is always nice to see writers venturing into new territory and exploring their driving themes from new directions. Here, darkness is identified but not wallowed in; hope and humor peek through in equal measure. The result is an intriguing novel that stands alongside other coming of age thrillers, such as Richard Laymon's The Traveling Vampire Show, Joe R. Lansdale's The Bottoms, Jeff Strand's Pressure, and Dean Koontz's The Voice of the Night. As a regular Bentley Little reader, this is one reviewer who wonders just what he’ll do next.

Purchase The Disappearance by Bentley Little.

Posted on Friday, November 19, 2010 at 12:19PM by Registered CommenterDark Scribe Magazine in | Comments Off

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