The Stranger Inside by Jennifer Jaynes
Thomas & Mercer, 2017
Available: Paperback, Kindle edition, Audible, Audio CD
Well, it’s happened. The Monster Kid, soon to be 12 years old, picked up, secretly read, and was completely engrossed in his first adult horror novel (why he thought he needed to hide this from me is beyond my understanding, but maybe keeping it underground is part of the allure). Technically, it’s the second one he’s read, but he was unimpressed by I Am Legend (I think he didn’t actually understand what was happening, which I am grateful for). And I suppose purists would say it’s more of a mystery thriller than a horror novel, but it was sent to me for review, and it has some pretty terrifying moments. The Monster Kid is a re-reader; once he finds a book he’s really fascinated by, he reads it over and over. I note that he has been sneaking it to school in his backpack, so obviously this is one of those books.
A Stranger Inside introduces us to the Christie family: widowed mystery writer Diane; her adopted 15 year old son, Josh; and her college-aged daughter, Alexa, who struggles with anger at her mother, grief, depression, and addiction. Diane and Josh have just moved to the college town where Alexa attends school, and Diane is struggling to adapt to small-town life and changing family dynamics. She’s also finally trying to move beyond her grief and anger at her husband’s suicide, and starting up a new relationship. Add to this mix the sudden murders of girls at Alexa’s school, and you have a recipe for disaster. What else would you expect in a town named Fog Harbor?
Jaynes’ slow-building characterization of the men in this story is what makes it creepy to me (obviously, this is not what appeals to my kid). Every single one of them gives off that “wrong” feeling, which only escalates as the events of the story, and the murders, continue. It is amazing to me is that Diane, a mystery writer, takes forever to pick any of this up. There’s Lance, a volunteer at the suicide hotline where Diane volunteers; Wayne, the grocery store manager who invades personal boundaries; Rick, her “perfect guy”, a former sniper who suffers from PTSD and has a houseful of guns. Even Alexa, who spends a good chunk of time in a drug-and-alcohol induced stupor, has more of a clue than her mom does.
While he picked up on the total lack of likability of any of the men in the book, I’m pretty sure the Monster Kid missed out on most of this, for obvious reasons. This is a kid who fast forwards through movies to get to the action scenes and giant explosions. This book is a really fast read, and if he did something similar, in skipping the character-building parts, that could explain why he sped through it in an evening. For him, it was the suspense, ratcheted up in part from not being able to tell which person in the book was the killer, the pacing, and the interspersed scenes of the killings, from the killer’s point of view. These aren’t graphically gory, but there’s definitely a focus on the stalker’s thrill at the chase that could leave your heart pounding. The killer was a character that completely surprised the Monster Kid, although based on his short, non-spoilery summary, I guessed it pretty quickly. The final scenes of the book are not ones I would have ever guessed, though.
This is an adult book, and there are a few sexual situations, although most of that is off-screen (can I say off-screen when writing about a book?). His primary pickup from this was the phrase “The room smelled like sex and french fries”, with the focus on the french fries. There’s also a date rape, which we see from Alexa’s point of view, which is pretty muddled since she’s drugged.
It’s kind of astonishing to me that, with all the horror novels in this house that he has hidden from view because of the covers or that even are just floating around, the Monster Kid picked this one, and is enthralled with it. It’s a sign that he’s growing older, I guess, and if he had to choose a book to start with, this wasn’t a bad one. In fact, the most disturbing part to me is the teenage boy and his role in the story, and maybe that’s because it hits so close to home. If he stays with books that have this level of violence and sex, it’ll be a relief. But I’ve been hearing a lot of mutterings about Stephen King…