Dries proved his writing chops with his intense and unsettling debut, House of Sighs, and sophomore efforts are usually deal-breakers for fans… So it’s a great achievement (yet no great surprise) that The Fallen Boys isn’t only as good as House of Sighs, but better. Were Dries to never write again, he would have firmly cemented his place in the horror community.
Suffice to say: like the best work of Jack Ketchum or Richard Laymon, The Fallen Boys left me shaking.
The novel tells the story of Marshall Deakins, who is still struggling to come to terms with the tragic suicide of his eleven-year-old son, Noah. Four years after the child is buried, a litany of questions remain, as they so often do in the wake of those who take their own lives … And Marshall wants answers. Through a series of circumstances that I won’t go into here (I’ll leave you to discover them, piece by piece), he embarks on a journey to find the truth behind his son’s death. But Marshall will be led down a dark and twisted path that will see him held captive in a madman’s deranged plan. And really, that’s where The Fallen Boys truly begins.
This is a particularly slight retelling of the complicated twists and turns in this fantastically plotted, psychological horror-thriller. And I dare not say more for fear of giving away too much. The joy of The Fallen Boys (as is the case with all quality horror) is in watching, helpless, as characters we have grown to love make mistake after mistake, falling deeper and deeper into a trap we know will undo them.
It is also important for readers to know that this novel deals with difficult subject matter, the most decisive being the issue of cyber bullying. In a plot that could have been ripped straight from today’s headlines, Dries cleverly (and with a great deal of sympathy) turns truth on its head and wholeheartedly embraces the potential of genre fiction — and uses horror as a metaphor for the loss of a generation. This is a serious novel about serious topics, which leads to an inevitable although entirely unexpected conclusion … This is the challenge the novel sets for itself, and it succeeds.
The Fallen Boys is about the fight against the temptations of vigilantism and revenge, and how that temptation can change victim into villain, a theme that was also explored in House of Sighs, thus linking the two books thematically. But the kinship doesn’t end there … Both of Dries’ novels are set within the same universe, with cross-over characters and locations. You get a sense that the author is creating a larger world upon which he will one day lay a great tale. And if The Fallen Boys is any indication to go by, that tale will be very good indeed. Because Dries started out incredibly strong and he seems to be going from strength to blood-splattered strength.
This novel gets under your skin and stays there. It’s not a story you can (or would really want to) shake off with ease. It lures you in with its layered mystery (what does the suicide of a child in Australia have to do with a series of kidnappings near Seattle?), then drags you in even further with its morality play (how far would you go to find out the truth, and how would it change you?) and then — about half way through — it traps you in a terrifying situation that recalls Stephen King at his finest (think Misery, or Cujo for instance). Dries NEVER lets you go — not even down to the very last sentence. He’s one of those authors who throws you into a nightmare and refuses to let you go, or show mercy. And to this particular reviewer, that’s the very essence of superb horror fiction. Otherwise, what’s the point?
The Fallen Boys is a terrifying descent into darkness; a fall from grace, with subtext to spare. It’s a cautionary tale that deliberately goes too far. The characterizations are rich and humane. The plot is labyrinthine and unexpected — it throws superbly crafted twist “grenades” at you with a deft and controlled hand (really, you would think that Dries had been writing for years). It’s touching too, the little details of Marshall’s collapsing marriage, the code words and the memories that are woven into even the most disturbing of sequences.
And yes, The Fallen Boys can be disturbing. There is violence, but it all serves the plot, and like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre, it leads to an impression of having experienced the extremes, whilst showing very little. In all honesty though, it has a stronger resemblance to Robert Bloch’s Psycho, which it proudly honors … It’s a novel that leaves the reader in a constant state of dread, fueled by ideas that never eventuate, only to have those notions taken in completely different (and often much more nihilistic) directions. Very Bloch-ian, indeed.
Suffice to say, I’m not easily caught of guard, but this damn book did it to me over and over and over again. Kudos where it’s due, Mister Dries.
This is a book with a very moral core, which is why it soars. It will upset and maybe even offend. It will trick you and make you wince. But above all else, The Fallen Boys will move you. This is a tale you will never forget, as told by one of the most important new voices in the genre.