Lee Thomas isn’t new to the horror genre. His 2004 debut novel Stained won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in the First Novel category, but it wasn’t until I saw Thomas’ The German on virtually every Best of 2011 list that I finally took notice. While I still haven’t had a chance to read his intelligent thriller, I got my first taste of Thomas’ work with his Cemetery Dance Publications Novella Series title Torn, which comes out this month.
From the Cemetery Dance website:
How do you go on when something like that happens to your child?
Bill Cranston is a family man, whose marriage is falling apart, eroding under his wife’s constant bitterness and her retreat into alcohol and drugs. He is also the sheriff of Luther’s Bend, a generally quiet town. When a little girl is abducted from a local park and carried into the woods, Bill leads a desperate search to find the child. But the little girl is only bait, and something vicious waits in the woods for her rescuers.
I am me. Can’t you see? I am me and he is he. When he is he, I can’t be me.
Douglas Sykes is insane. He sits in Bill Cranston’s cell, speaking in rhymes and riddles. Though a stranger to Luther’s Bend, Sykes seems to know a lot about Sheriff Cranston. Through his ramblings he reveals secrets about Bill, and secrets about himself. Sykes claims to be a mythological creature – a monster – and a handful of his victims have finally tracked him down, victims who now share Sykes’ affliction.
A pack is descending on Luther’s Bend. They are hunting Sykes, and they will not stop until everyone near him is left broken, bleeding, and torn.
Reading Thomas’ Torn it’s apparent why he has garnered a bevvy of awards and praise for his work. Cracking open this novella is like busting into a box of those golden fishes (you know, the ones that smile until you bite their heads off) and telling yourself you’ll only eat a few. There’s no stopping once you start. Not one for elaborate set-up, at least in this novella, Thomas chucks the reader right into the heart of the drama. Maggie Louis Mayflower has gone missing and Sheriff Bill Cranston and crew are canvassing the woods near the park for her whereabouts. Shortly after, we have our first death and the suspense of the story kicks into high gear with the whole town in a frenzy over the recent events.
As the synopsis suggests, there are two parts of Torn; pre-Douglas Sykes and post-Sykes. Pre-Sykes Torn paints the town Sheriff, Bill, as the hometown hero and neglected family man, someone who plays single father to his two little girls while their mother sleeps away each day in a pill-induced haze claiming to suffer from “migraines.” In the post-Sykes narrative the story chips away at the picture perfect façade of Bill. Through Sykes’ telling rhymes we find Bill harbors a devastating secret. Various clues come together like puzzle pieces to build an alternate perspective to the overall tale of a town terrorized by strange monsters and harmful lies.
In the same way the story shifts the reader’s perspective two ways, the word “torn” similarly takes on various meanings. There is the literal sense of the word regarding not only the bodies of the monster’s victims being torn apart, but also the monsters themselves as they morph from human to beast. Then there is the metaphorical sense which represents man torn between his innate bestial craving and his civilized self, and also the conflict of the heart’s desire and society’s expectation.
Initially, I thought “cool, a creepy monster story,” but that just shows how little I know about Lee Thomas’ writing. Torn represents his complexity as a writer that I am sure is present in his other work. This novella is a creepy monster story, but there is another layer to this tale that Thomas reveals with disciplined patience never threatening to disrupt his pacing. He not only spins an effective horror yarn with dark atmosphere and chilling suspense, but Torn also offers a not-so-subtle message about the destructive nature of repression, in this particular case sexual, whether that manifests in violent physical outbursts or emotion turmoil.
Torn is a bite-sized novella that packs all the flavor of a full course meal. Thomas’ pacing is consistently unrelenting, the characters flawed and endearing, and the atmosphere horrifyingly dark. I had trouble tearing myself away at night, so I must end this review with a warning: this book could be hazardous to your sleep!