by Gillian Flynn
A review by Spencer Dew
In the 1980s, America was gripped by a phenomenon so frightening and shameful that it has all too quickly been brushed under history's rug. The fusion of journalism and entertainment -- personified by leading figure Geraldo Rivera -- led to "the Satanic Panic," wherein viewers fell for the unfounded (and fantastic) claims conveyed by Rivera during several primetime specials devoted to devil-worshipping cults, demonic conspiracies, ritual child abuse, and even the occasional act of cannibalism. "Estimates are that there are over one million Satanists in this country," Rivera proclaimed to a watching nation. "The majority of them are linked in a highly organized, very secretive network. From small towns to large cities, they have attracted police and FBI attention to their Satanic ritual child abuse, child pornography, and grisly Satanic murders. The odds are that this is happening in your town."
The odds, in fact, were that no such thing was occurring. Child abuse, while rampant, took more banal forms, sans robes and chanting. Society was, certainly, full of horror and injustice, but most manifestations could not be so easily mapped onto the smug certainties of a metaphysical conflict between God and the devil. In fact, some of the injustice came from the very people who were so zealously persecuting the so-called Satanists, from hack authors to evangelists, corrupt cops to manipulative therapists. Rivera, in 1995, recanted, apologizing for his role in sending "many innocent people... to prison" and admitting that he had been "terribly wrong" in his beliefs and their sensational perpetuation, declaring that the "Repressed Memory Therapy Movement" which he (and other television personalities hungry for ratings) had briefly championed was, indeed, "a bunch of crap."
Television critic Gillian Flynn, author of the 2006 novel Sharp Objects, delves into this disturbing history in her new thriller, Dark Places. The book follows Libby Day, survivor of a family massacre who, despite having contributed her name to a ghostwritten self-help book entitled Brand New Day! Don't Just Survive Childhood Trauma -- Surpass It!, has some "trouble maintaining." Libby's problems include kleptomania, an aversion to work, and the motivating factor that she suddenly finds herself broke. In an attempt to cash in on her minor notoriety, she tries to sell family mementoes and ultimately agrees -- for cash in advance -- to re-investigate her family's brutal slaughter, using her personal connections to the people and events involved.
Flynn relates this story through several points of view and in two chronologies, such that we follow the events leading up to the killing simultaneously with Libby's unraveling of what she, since childhood, had considered an open-and-shut case. We get to know her brother Ben, in prison for the massacre, as an adolescent who feels "trapped and dickless," living in poverty with his mother and sisters, dreaming of violence and a way out, listening to Slayer and reveling in the scent of his older girlfriend's mentholated cigarette smoke. We meet Libby's long-lost, good-for-nothing father, ending his life as a squatter in a Superfund site thick with discarded grasshopper poison. And then there are the members of the Kill Club, obsessives who write to imprisoned murderers, role-play them at gatherings, or assemble clues on their own to identify and help capture culprits.
While the characters are frequently cartoony and the mystery unravels too easily, the real misfortune of Dark Places is to be the follow-up to an arguably perfect debut novel. Sharp Objects showed that Flynn possesses a talent far beyond any genre or formula. The genius of that book is quite muted here, shining through mainly in descriptions: the strip club bar where slippery nipple shots are poured "pre-made, from a plastic jug"; an economy in which farming sinks through the bottom while new money seems to be in things like blank videotape wholesaling; and, of course, the bloody scene itself: "Maniacal smears of bright red sound in the night. That inevitable, rhythmic axe, moving as mechanically as if it were chopping wood. Shotgun blasts in a small hallway. The panicked, jaybird cries of my mother, still trying to save her kids with half her head gone."
Dark Places also offers an authentic portrayal of the itchy angst and burning blunder of adolescence and, in its devotion to a world populated by mostly failed people who somehow managed to do one thing right -- or one right thing -- it remains committed to a complexly human, yet hopeful, vision. Readers will surely hope for more work from Flynn; whether it will be along the line of patterned entertainments such as this one or something more robust and lasting will be dictated by the author's ambitions.
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