Rules For Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall

The Blurb On The Back:

Once a year, a road appears in the woods at midnight and the ghost of Lucy Gallows beckons, inviting those who are brave enough to play her game.  If you win, you escape with your life.  But if you lose …

It’s almost a year since Becca went missing.  Everyone else has given up searching for her, but her sister, Sara, knows she disappeared while looking for Lucy Gallows.  Determined to find her, Sara and her closest friends enter the woods.  But something more sinister than ghosts lurks on the road, and not everyone will survive.  

You can order RULES FOR VANISHING by Kate Alice Marshall from Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or UK.  I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 9 May 2017.

Dr Andrew Ashford (an academic with an interest in the paranormal) is interviewing Sara Donoghue after the mysterious disappearance of a number of teenagers in the town of Briar Glen, Massachusetts.  A year earlier, Sara’s older sister Becca also disappeared.  Sara’s parents (along with everyone else) just assumed that she had run off with her boyfriend, Zachary Kent, who her parents disapproved of but Sara subsequently found Becca’s diary and is certain that her sister was investigating the legend of Lucy Gallows.  

Everyone in Briar Glen knows the story of Lucy Gallows.  On 19 April 1953, 12-year-old Lucy was going to be a flower girl at her older sister’s wedding but ran off into the forest after an argument with her mum.  When her brother went looking for her, he found that a mysterious road had appeared on which his sister was standing, talking to a man in a wide brimmed hat.  Before he could stop her, she took the man’s hand and together they walked further along the road, which eventually disappeared from her brother’s view.  The urban legend that sprang up afterwards says that two people, standing hand-in-hand at the edge of the woods can summon Lucy’s ghost and the mysterious road if they close their eyes and take 13 steps.  But Sara knows that there’s an older version of the legend, one that pre-dates Lucy Gallows and says that if you summon the road and pass through the 7 gates that line it, then you can get a wish at the end.  Sara is certain that Becca and Zachary figured out that the road could be summoned on the anniversary of Lucy’s disappearance.

On 17 April 2017, every student at Briar Glen High School received a text message inviting them to find a partner, find a key and find the road if they want to know where Lucy went.  2 days later, Sara and her friends – Anthony Beck (the good-looking captain of the school’s lacrosse and soccer teams who had a crush on Becca), Nick Dessen (gawky and awkward), Vanessa Han (a nerdy girl with an interest in history), Trina Jeffries (a gifted student who is expected to be valedictorian), Kyle Jeffries (Trina’s 15-year-old younger brother), Melanie Whitaker (a fun-loving girl who Sara has a crush on), Miranda Ryder (a friend of Mel’s who agreed to go with her), and Jeremy Polk (Anthony’s best friend and co-captain who’s deaf) go to the woods to summon the road.

But the teenagers discover that just as the road is real so too are rules that must be obeyed because dark and sinister forces inhabit the road and one false move can mean a fate far, far worse than death …

Kate Alice Marshall’s YA horror novel is a haphazard, disjointed affair whose plot draws on the legend of Ys.  However its connection with small-town America is never explained and neither is the narrative framing device while many of the side characters are interchangeable.  That said there are some genuinely creepy moments and sinister imagery such that although the book did not work for me, I’d be interested in reading Marshall’s other work.

I’m going to start by saying that, for me, this is a rare example of a book that I think would actually work better as a screenplay and film than it does as a novel.  Marshall has a sharp eye for creepy imagery and some of the creative ideas in this book – most notably the way that everyone literally forgets about one of their friends – are clever but would work much more effectively on the screen where you can add layers through performance but also because the constant flashbacks would work more effectively.  Here the constant cuts between Sara’s sessions with Ashford, her written testimony about what happened to her and her friends and then the supplemental extracts from phone recordings and text messages kept throwing me out of the story – with the one exception of where one of her friends disappears and the flashbacks that come later reveal what happened.

The other problem with the narrative device is that the book opens with a mysterious person commenting on having obtained the Ashford records.  We never find out who that person is, who they were reporting to, why they’re interested or what they’re trying to get from it.  There’s also no real background on Ashford’s story or his relationship with Abby Ryder or what either is looking to achieve long term.  I also found the sections narrated by Sara to be quite artificial, again because I wasn’t sure who they were being written to – whether she produced them for Ashford or for the police but also they’re written in the present tense, which is a strange choice because if she’s produced it for Ashford then I’d expect it to be past tense.  

Character-wise, I have to say that I found the writing to be a little lacking.  For me, Sara was a little empty as a character – an ex-Goth (although there’s no sense of any Gothness to her other than what we’re told she used to be like).  She loves her sister although there’s nothing there to establish the basis for that love and even her bi-sexuality seems a bit tacked on.  Similarly Becca is also under-drawn – the book makes a bit of a deal about her being Asian in a mostly white town but that doesn’t go anywhere and similarly the fact that she’s adopted is mentioned several times and there’s a suggestion that it was a source of tension with her mother but it doesn’t get fleshed out.  

All of the friends who accompany Sara are interchangeable.  There’s no real sense of the fact that Anthony, Nick, Trina and Mel were all supposedly very close to each other and while this could be explained by Sara pulling back over the last year, it does make for a frustrating read that lacks emotional depth – especially when the road starts exerting its toll.  In fact, I felt more sorry for Vanessa, who doesn’t get a huge amount of page time and who is there out of natural curiosity and who seemed to have some promise to her only to go out quite brutally.  Separately, the revelations that come about Miranda all left me with more questions than answers and came quite close to being contrived – almost as if it was something from a different book that got added to this.  By the time I put the book down I did feel that you could have cut her as a character and not lost anything because the bits of information she brings could have been done by the other characters.

All this brings me to the mentions of Ys (which is a traditional legend).  Marshall seeds it in slowly and for me it was all too slow and too late into the book.  Plus given that it is a “known” legend, I really would have liked someone to explain the story beyond the extracts that confusing bits we get here – if only because it would have made the reveal more powerful.  And that lack of development was a big issue for me.  Given how much research Sara does on Lucy Gallows and what she gets from Becca’s diary, there is zero curiosity when Ys starts to get mentioned.  Equally, while I could buy the fact that the teenagers break the rules, the weird lack of concern when they do just did not ring true to me and began to annoy me after a while.  Topping it off is an open ending that had the effect of leaving me quite annoyed.

All this is a shine because there are some genuinely creepy scenes in the book.  From the reveal about Nick to the scenes in a very creepy mansion and the villages the teenagers have to pass through in order to get there, Marshall has a good eye for the sinister and knows when to bring in the grosser horror imagery to flesh out (no pun intended) her scenes.  Also as I said before, I thought the execution on the disappearance of one of the teens was clever – an original idea that I hadn’t seen before – and well executed.

Ultimately, although there are some good moments in this book ultimately it just didn’t gel enough for me and left with more questions than answers in a way that was not satisfying.  That said even though this book didn’t work for me, there was enough here for me to be interested in checking out Marshall’s other work because I think she could bring a lot to the YA horror genre.  

Thanks to Walker Books for the review copy of this book.

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