By turns suspenseful, creepy and sad, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock is a simple story that centers around how easily decent people can do terrible things.
Framed around the disappearance of a teenage boy at a state park, the story shifts between events leading up to the disappearance of Tommy Sanderson, and the aftermath of the disappearance, with the search, police investigation and the mother, Elizabeth, and younger sister Kate, trying to cope.
Tremblay, who has a short essay about the story at the end of the novel, makes reference to his work as generally ambiguous, but I would describe what he does here not so much as deliberate ambiguity, but more a technique to create a specific mood, even if it ultimately has no payout for the story itself. Tremblay is, in a way, tricking the reader into believing things in order to spook them.
Much like his previous novel, A Head Full of Ghosts, Disappearance at Devil’s Rock presents seemingly supernatural occurrences, some of which are explained, others of which are not. The problem with this approach is twofold–the unexplained events do add to the atmosphere of the story, but do not materially add to the story beyond that, and as Tremblay has used this technique in two consecutive novels, it risks becoming a predictable shtick. As I progressed through Disappearance at Devil’s Rock, it became clear the supernatural aspects would have no bearing on the overall story or its outcome and at that point those elements almost became irritants that distracted from the real story of how three teenage boys came under the spell of a disturbed young man in his early 20s.
Surprisingly, the breaking of writing rules didn’t bother me at all. Tremblay frequently shifts the POV from one character to another, often in the same scene. There are police interviews that are literally presented as transcripts, though the story overall is not written as an epistolary. Journal notes are presented as huge walls of text.
I was also surprised at how unaffected by Elizabeth and Kate’s emotional suffering. I sympathized over their loss, but didn’t feel much else, and I can’t say exactly why. Tremblay writes well, but there is something in the prose here that created distance and pushed me away instead of pulling me in.
Overall, I did enjoy the story, but don’t be fooled by the pretense to supernatural or non-psychological horror elements. They don’t really inform the story, and act more as decoration around the edges, even if they are presented in a skillful and evocative way.
Also, Tremblay clearly did his homework on Minecraft. :P
Recommended if the premise and central theme interests you, but not a must-read. A Head Full of Ghosts does a lot of what this book does, but with a fresher take on its subject.