"How do you go on when something like that happens to your child?" With those words opening Torn, the new novella by Lee Thomas (coming soon from Cemetery Dance as part of their "Novella Series"), I knew I was in for what might at times be an uncomfortable read. I'm a father – a relatively new one at five years in – and while many things have changed in my life in those few years, my ability to process bad things happening to children (even of the fictional variety) has changed the most. In fact, it was completely short-circuited the moment my daughters were born.
Sure enough, Thomas confirmed my initial trepidation by opening his story with the abduction of 11-year-old Maggie Mayflower. Maggie lives in Luther's Bend, a small town that is blissfully unaccustomed to such tragic events. Fortunately, the town's sheriff, Bill Cranston, is much better equipped to handle the situation than most small-town sheriffs found in horror fiction. Cranston is no bumbling loser with a drinking problem; he isn't some rube who got the job because his daddy knew "the right people." Cranston is an intelligent, compassionate, level-headed man with a solid grip on his job, and he acts quickly and efficiently when Maggie's father Les calls him with the news of her disappearance.
However, Cranston does have problems, even if doing his job isn't one of them. His home life is crumbling around him. His wife has turned against him, alternating an increasingly hostile attitude with bouts of self-medication involving pills and alcohol. Cranston is left to struggle with his wife's suspicions while trying to shield their young daughters from the deterioration of the relationship.
And then Maggie disappears, and the last shreds of stability in Cranston's life begin to run through his fingers like sand.
A suspect is quickly caught, and once he's locked down Cranston feels sure the case is close to being out of his hands. But there are things that still nag at the sheriff about what happened, like the fact that the captured man, Douglas Sykes, bears absolutely no resemblance to eyewitness accounts he's been given of the man who took Maggie, and the fact that the man bears no resemblance to the person who ambushed a group searching for Maggie in the nearby woods. And when Sykes begins to talk, spouting cryptic prophecy in rhyme, Cranston's unease turns to outright fear.
It's amazing what Thomas is able to accomplish in a volume as thin as Torn: strong (and often surprising) characterization, the efficient setup of story, compelling action and a brutal last stand of a finale. Thomas doesn't waste a single word, resulting in a lean machine of a story that I only put down once (and only then because local law enforcement frowns on people reading and driving at the same time). But perhaps the most impressive thing about the story is the way Thomas is able to use the plot device of endangered children – which, let's be honest, is a guaranteed way of creating tension – in a way that doesn't come across as exploitative or lazy. It's as integral to the beginning of the story as it is to the end – an end which is going to break your heart in ways that you won't see coming.
Equal parts character drama, suspense thriller and balls-out monster movie, Torn is tailor-made for a lazy summer afternoon. Grab it and enjoy the continued rise of one of horror's best hopes for the future.
Order Torn from Cemetery Dance.
Blu Gilliand is a freelance writer of fiction and nonfiction. He covers horror fiction at his blog, October Country, and contributes interviews to the Horror World website. Follow him on Twitter at @BluGilliand.