Review: The Three by Sarah Lotz

The Three by Sarah Lotz | Little, Brown and Co., 2014

After four planes crash simultaneously in geographically disparate locations, three child survivors emerge unscathed from the wreckage (the presence of a fourth child is possible but neither confirmed nor denied). Instant media darlings the Three, as they come to be known, are viewed as miracles by some and as harbingers of greater doom yet to come by others. The Three is presented as fact; the novel cleverly written as if it were a manuscript of a nonfiction book investigating the crash, its aftermath, and the survivors and their families. As I’ve said in the past this is a format that horror fiction leans on heavily stemming as far back as Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto in 1764 to the modern film equivalent of found-footage.

As with much of documentary-type horror creators can often struggle with creating emotional connections between characters and between the characters and the reader. Lotz faces that same difficulty here as she sticks to her guns as our journalist-author maintains a well-defined impartial observer role throughout the novel. The introduction of Paul, the uncle of one of the surviving children, helps circumvent this somewhat as his direct narration of his own experiences (written as if transcribed from audio recordings sent to he author) provide a more conventional narrative as the novel unfolds. Indeed Paul’s narration falls most in line with the classic horror narrative as his own narration becomes ever more erratic.

The portions of the book that deal with the Three directly are where Lotz introduces the more traditional horror elements. Primarily through creepy behavior and suddenly miraculous changes (one survivor’s grandfather suffers  Alzheimer’s and experience sudden lucidity around his grandson) Lotz introduces characterizes the children in a way could appear supernatural in origin but can also be easily dismissed as either coincidence or as the result of the emotional trauma caused by crashes. Its a clever trick and a very thin line to walk but for me the ambiguity grew frustrating. Indeed Lotz relies on that ambiguity to such a degree that the novel’s conclusion doesn’t quite match the tone of the rest of the novel.

Through the behavior and strange activities of the children Lotz manages to engender a sense of tread. Similarly, with the introduction of a group of Christians who see the Three (and the missing fourth child) as the Four Horsemen Lotz manages to introduce a sense of further tension in the novel. The novel’s documentary approach allows the reader to take a step back from the novel. This fact when combined the ambiguity of the Three’s nature means the reader is constantly torn between wondering if the beliefs of the radical Christian group are either founded or unfounded while simultaneously worrying that the group is targeting potentially innocent, if emotionally damaged, children. It’s a clever effect and one that proves delightfully unsettling.

By the same token the novel’s structure as a non-fiction book works against it. The complexity of the plot and the book’s neutral tone make becoming emotionally invested in the story a difficult prospect. While the tension in the novel is certainly present and accounted for I never really experienced that overbearing sense of creeping dread that exemplifies the best horror fiction. The Three falls squarely in the thriller category never quite making its way all the way into the mirky recesses of supernatural horror; though it does occasionally dip its toes in that water. As I stated earlier I found that the novel’s conclusion spoiled the rest of the novel for me and the concluding “epilogue” didn’t quite mesh with the overall tone of the novel as a whole. Despite its shortcomings The Three is a novel the stays with you thanks to its deep look at our media obsessed culture and clever ambiguity. This is a novel that is definitely worth a look for those in the market for a summer read that borders on the chilling without ever delving right into outright terror.

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