Vanguard Press, 2010 (orig. Pocket Book, 1997)
While I planned on dedicating all of my vacation reading to getting through a number of sequels to series I’ve been reading the serendipitous discovery of Clegg’s Neverland in the New Fiction section at the library put that task off for a bit. Oftentimes, for reasons I can’t quite explain, the desire to read horror fiction strikes me during the height of summer. There is a part of me that equates the thrills and chills of a good horror novel with the bright sun and oppressive heat of a summer afternoon. In truth many of my favorite horror novels have taken place during the summer, notably Caitlin Kiernan’s Red Tree and Dan Simmons Summer of Night make excellent use of the summer months to enhance their settings. Thus when I settled down at the beach last Saturday the book I first grabbed was Neverland.
Neverland follows the young Beau during his annual family vacation to his Grandmother’s home in Gull Island, Georgia. There his cantankerous Grandmother ruthlessly criticizes her children and grandchildren while his parents drink a bit too much. Left to his own devices Beau, his sisters, and his cousin Sumter are inevitably drawn to a forbidden maintenance shed that Sumter believes houses a god named Lucy; a place he has named Neverland. There the children are lead by Sumter into ever escalating and increasingly dark rituals set about to bring Lucy into the world.
Leaving the supernatural aspects of the novel aside for a moment what makes Neverland so engaging is Clegg’s ability to so readily capture the personalities and perspectives of children. The observations by Beau are precise and accurate colored by his innocence yet evident a wisdom and foresight that adults frequently fail to see in youth. The children still act like children saying what’s on their mind frequently with little foresight, or evincing a cruelty born of curiosity that is so often the province of children and in Neverland a quality that serves to birth some of the novel’s most horrific moments. None of the characterization of Neverland’s youthful characters feels out of place and the pitch perfect tone in dialogue and action adds an element of realism that enhances the horror.
The horror of Neverland is top notch and occurs on multiple levels. On the one hand there is a certain amount of psychological terror not necessarily from the characters themselves but inherent in the role of reader as witness in the novel. The growing sense of dread at the escalation of the activities in the titular Neverland arises from the knowledge, or at least belief, that this can’t end well; an inherent wrongness in the actions of the characters that feels tantamount to watching inevitable and ultimately unavoidable car wreck. Some horror novels, and many horror movies, fail at this aspect, those moments where the reader or viewer screams “Don’t go in there!” or whenever a character stupidly stumbles off into the dark by themselves and leave you shaking your head in frustration rather then sympathy. What Clegg does is create characters whose decisions you understand even if you the reader recognize that they aren’t the right ones. Clegg goes on to masterfully blend that sense of wrongness and dread in simple decision making and realistic actions with elements of the supernatural. Early in the novel Beau’s experience with the “thing” that Sumter keeps in the crate in Neverland can be taken as the gullibility of a child or something more supernatural in nature. Sure Clegg’s description leans heavily toward a supernatural explanation there is a always a tiny sliver of doubt that perhaps Beau was imagining things; that his fear made him see something that wasn’t actually there. Clegg twists the wonder of a child’s imagination into something horrible at once evoking fond memories of childhood games and tainting them with dark stains of blood. That blend of Wonder, horror, and revulsion really makes this novel shine and kept me turning pages as fast as I possible could.
I could go on and on but really the bottom line is this is one of my standout reads in 2010. I have constantly lamented the dearth of horror titles in recent years and despite this being a 13 year old novel Neverland gives me hope that we will continue to see quality titles in horror over the coming years. If you’re looking for a good scare and want to delve into the dark shadows of childhood to escape the heat of this wickedly hot summer I highly recommend you give Neverland a shot.