Sarah Lotz (sarahlotz.com)
Hodder & Stoughton (www.hodder.co.uk)
They’re here…The boy watch the boy watch the dead people oh Lordy there’s so many…They’re coming for me now. We’re all going soon…Pastor Len warn them that the boy he’s not to-
It was the day that would become known as Black Thursday, the day when four large passenger jets crashed – at almost the exact same time – on four different continents across the planet, killing hundreds and leaving three children alive. Pamela May Donald, on a trip to visit her daughter in Japan, is one of the last to die, and she leaves a cryptic message on her mobile phone, addressed to Pastor Len. Len, not a man to let a sign from God pass by, decides that the three surviving children are three of the four horsemen of the apocalypse and proposes that there must be a survivor from the fourth plane, if only he or she could be found. The children seem to be changed after their ordeal, above and beyond what might be expected from youngsters who have suffered such terrible trauma and Pastor Len’s theory begins to gain a large following. Religious fervour, conspiracy theories and good old-fashioned paranoia combine to drastically change the face of the world as we know it in an entirely believable and utterly frightening apocalyptic scenario.
With the exception of the short opening and closing sections, Sarah Lotz’s latest novel, The Three, takes the form of a non-fiction examination – Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy by Elspeth Martins – of the events of that fateful day. Filled with first-person testimonies (ostensibly gathered from Skype conversations with the interviewees), book excerpts, chat-room transcripts and news articles, the story of what happened during Black Thursday unfolds from the multiple viewpoints of the people closest to the tragedy: first responders to the various crash scenes, the family members closest to the three survivors – The Three of the book’s title – and the small community that Pamela May Donald and Pastor Len Vorhees called home.
Lotz captures the mood perfectly: the natural thoughts that might go through peoples’ heads should four passenger planes crash almost instantaneously; the religious fervour that ensues when one charismatic man is given a platform and spins a compelling yarn; the various other theories that spring up and die after short-lived circulation: conspiracy theories without number; alien invasion; government cover-ups; you name it, chances are it’s in here somewhere. One of the most impressive aspects of the novel by far is the incredible uniqueness of each of the voices that tell us the story: each has their own little tics and identifying features, and Lotz manages to find the perfect voice – accent, style of delivery, the lot – for each of these racially diverse and geographically remote speakers.
The book – the non-fiction work contained within this incredible piece of fiction – is designed to be read by a public who are aware of the outcome, who probably followed developments on the news as they occurred, so we have a very good idea of where the Three are headed from early in the novel. Despite this, the structure of the narrative allows Lotz to play with us a little, to string us along and drip-feed the information. In essence, The Three sets out to show how the world changes for the individuals involved – from Paul Craddock’s slow descent into seeming insanity to the radical changes that come over young Bobby Small’s grandfather – but also takes the time to reflect wider changes with a global scope: the rise of the religious right in the US, and the drastic effects on the political situation between the West and the Far East.
What makes The Three so frightening, so engaging, is its realism, and the believability of the eventual outcome. Yes, these children are creepy in the same way that the children of Midwich are creepy and yes, reading The Three will give you pause before you step on another plane, but it’s Len Vorhees’ story, and the implications that it brings, that stands out. This is a scene we have encountered many times before in the news headlines: Waco is mentioned explicitly, but consider also the likes of Ruby Ridge or Jonestown. Lotz’s understated approach to dealing with this storyline fills the reader with a sense of dread, made worse by the political connections that creep in as the novel progresses. In many ways, for me, this is the novel that The Testimony promised to be, but never quite delivered.
As the book draws to a close, we get a glimpse of what the world is like post-Black Thursday and it is far from a pretty picture. Lotz takes the scenario to one logical conclusion from which there is no comeback, and these final fifty pages contain more scares and spine-tingling moments than the rest of the novel, perhaps because they aren’t filtered, like the rest of the story, through the distorted lens of a factual, journalistic text. That said, for me, the non-fiction text is the perfect vehicle for telling these disparate stories without fracturing the narrative beyond readability.
In equal measures gripping and frightening, Sarah Lotz’s The Three is the type of book that it’s difficult to put down once you’ve started reading. An easy narrative style, despite the vast array of different voices – each easily identifiable – and a mystery that stretches for the duration of the book, keep the pages turning and the blood pumping. This is apocalyptic horror at its best: old-school storytelling that relies on the reader’s imagination to fuel the fear. The most original novel I’ve read in at least the past year, in terms of story, structure and characterisation, it’s a must for anyone who claims to like – or love – books.
Don’t forget, you can still read Sarah Lotz’s contribution to #CarrieAt40 here.