According to the novel’s dust jacket, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, by Paul Tremblay, is a “blend of literary fiction, psychological suspense, and supernatural horror.” And that’s true—it is all of these things. It is the kind of empathetic horror that digs into the core of your heart, that crawls under your skin and makes you ache with terrible, agonizing love for the human race.
What I find most intriguing about Tremblay’s work is that the supernatural element is there, yes, but it’s in the sidelines. It isn’t the point of the story. It’s more like a whisper, a question, an echo that haunts the deeper, darker, and much more real terror at the heart of the story.
Because, at the real core of this book is the question: How do we know what really happened? How can we ever know?
When 13-year-old Tommy goes missing, his mother Elizabeth, sister Kate, friends, and law enforcement embark on a journey to find him and discover the secret behind his disappearance. The novel is written in third person, present tense through several different points of view. This choice of present tense gives the novel a very journalistic feel: an in-the-moment, just-the-facts sort of vibe.
And it is that, just the facts: what characters are wearing, how they’re feeling, the steps they retrace to locate Tommy’s whereabouts. But it’s also only certain facts, isn’t it? At any given point in time, the reader is only getting part of the information.
And in that sense, isn’t all writing, all forms of communication, a form of manipulation – even when a person is being truthful? Because we are trying to tell the story a certain way, trying to get the reader or listener to feel and understand specific things, there is always something left out or not said. That’s how novels work: it’s what we are not told that keeps us reading, because we are trying to get at the rest of it, to uncover the mystery. To find out the facts that are missing, the parts of the story we aren’t being told. The elusive, slippery nature of words have a manipulative effect on us. They make us crave more.
That’s how media works, too, all forms of it. This novel explores the new territory of media, specifically social media, and how information is shared with the world. It explores the incredible complexity of our new, global way of communicating with each other. We are able to share information in ways that, even just a decade ago, we never would have imagined was possible. It’s powerful—a power that must be wielded carefully, responsibly, and respectfully. Must be, yes, and which also often is not.
In the novel, social media is used to inform the public about the progress of Tommy’s case. And Tommy’s story spreads like wildfire. But we also see how quickly the story takes on a life of its own as the public gets their hands on it. It morphs in ways that we don’t see coming—ways that aren’t always favorable or desirable. Rumors and gossip evolve as people take the minute details of Tommy’s story and spin them in terrible and frightening ways. We live in a time where everyone is the media—everyone has a voice. Those voices clamor together noisily until the real thing—the real story, the real people—are buried beneath the rubble of words and sentences and syntax and voices and slants and opinions and memes and hashtags and righteous indignation.
So, how do we know what really happened?
How can we ever know?
On page 274, Elizabeth combs through the transcripts of various testimony and confessions, trying to piece together the truth of what has happened to her son. Tremblay writes, “So Elizabeth reads. And reads. And mixes and matches pages and sections and individual answers. And Tommy is there with her, not in the antiseptically bright, shadowless room, but trapped in the transcript pages, huddled between the lines.”
Elizabeth uses these words and statements to try to make sense of her nightmare. There is the maddening implication that all we ever have to make sense of the world are words and sentences, and yet the things people say are tainted by their perceptions, emotions, and motives—so nothing is ever said quite exactly as it happened. Yet, it’s all we have to go on. Language is what we use—in conversations, online, in books, in media—to describe the world itself. It’s how we scrape and claw, however feebly, at the truth: the truth of what happened, the truth of why we’re here, the truth of the human condition.
It’s enough to drive a person crazy. On page 326, Elizabeth is at a loss: “She should say something but she can’t, and the thought of more words—spoken or written—makes her dizzy.”
So, what really happened?
Can we ever really know? You’ll have to read the novel to find out.