Title: Whisper Down the Lane
Author: Clay McLeod Chapman
Publication date: April 6, 2021
Length: 304 pages
Genre: Psychological thriller
Source: Review copy courtesy of the publisher via NetGalley
Inspired by the McMartin preschool trials and the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, the critically acclaimed author of The Remaking delivers another pulse pounding, true-crime-based horror novel.
Richard doesn’t have a past. For him, there is only the present: a new marriage to Tamara, a first chance at fatherhood to her son Elijah, and a quiet but pleasant life as an art teacher at Elijah’s elementary school in Danvers, Virginia. Then the body of a rabbit, ritualistically murdered, appears on the school grounds with a birthday card for Richard tucked beneath it. Richard doesn’t have a birthday—but Sean does . . .
Sean is a five-year-old boy who has just moved to Greenfield, Virginia, with his mother. Like most mothers of the 1980s, she’s worried about bills, childcare, putting food on the table . . . and an encroaching threat to American life that can take the face of anyone: a politician, a friendly neighbor, or even a teacher. When Sean’s school sends a letter to the parents revealing that Sean’s favorite teacher is under investigation, a white lie from Sean lights a fire that engulfs the entire nation—and Sean and his mother are left holding the match.
Now, thirty years later, someone is here to remind Richard that they remember what Sean did. And though Sean doesn’t exist anymore, someone needs to pay the price for his lies.
If you’re of a certain age, you remember hearing about the McMartin preschool scandal of the 1980s, in which the staff of a family-run preschool was accused of hundreds of counts of abuse and of participating in Satanic rituals with the children in their care. It was horrifying, gross… and untrue. All of the accused were acquitted… but do we remember the acquittals? Or do we remember the accusations? I think the answer is self-evident.
In Whisper Down the Lane, Richard is an elementary school art teacher, newly married to another teacher, and hoping to adopt the stepson who’s also one of his students. Richard comes across as kind but a little odd when we first meet him, with his mind often wandering away, not really fond of small talk or collegial chitchat with coworkers.
Richard is also Sean, but his memories of being Sean have been repressed down to nothingness. As Sean, at age five, he first confirmed his worried mother’s suspicions about his kindly kindergarten teacher, and eventually became the star witness in the hugely publicized case against several teachers accused of horrifying abuse and Satanic practices. And as in real-life, the case eventually fell apart, but the damage done to those accused was indelible.
Richard’s memories of Sean start creeping back after some weird, unexplainable incidents begin to occur around him, starting with an eviscerated bunny on the school field and escalating from there. Finally, as Richard himself faces accusations of abuse, we readers have to wonder whether the tightly sealed borders between Richard and Sean have finally eroded enough to push Richard over the edge into madness and unspeakable acts.
There is a lot going on here, and plenty to challenge and disgust the book’s readers. As the Sean pieces of the narrative make clear, the children who provided witness testimony during the Satanic panic were pushed and manipulated by the adults in their lives — parents, police, and psychologists — to deliver the answers the adults were looking for. The author skillfully places us inside Sean’s mind, so we can see how his desire to please his mother led to statements later used to condemn his teacher in the court of public opinion.
It’s horrible, pure and simple, to see the lives destroyed, and equally horrible to see how these young children were introduced to topics well beyond their ability to digest, being spoon-fed details that led them to confirm drug-fueled orgies, sacrifices, graveyard rituals, and more.
As Richard’s memories intrude into his daily life, he does act in ways that would appear crazy and even dangerous to those around him. As I read the book, I couldn’t see how there could possibly be another answer but that Richard had had a breakdown and was actually responsible for the events happening around him… and I won’t say whether I was right or wrong!
I did go into Whisper Down the Lane expecting a horror story, and while there are elements that shade in that direction, this book is more a story of psychological terror than out-and-out horror. I thought the ending was clever and surprising, and I did not see it coming.
That said, because I expected horror, I felt a little let down by parts of the story and the solutions to the central mysteries, but that may be due more to the marketing and positioning of the book than any fault of the book itself.
Certainly, Whisper Down the Lane is a fast, compelling read. Once I got started, I just could not stop. The jumps back and forth between Sean and Richard are so disturbing, and the recounting of the Satanic abuse case and Sean’s role in it is truly awful to read about — even more so knowing it’s based on real cases from the 1980s.
Whisper Down the Lane is a creepy tale that’s impossible to put down or stop thinking about. Be prepared for a dark, sleep-interrupting read. Highly recommended, but not if you’re looking for light entertainment!