Tuesday, June 23, 2009


Title: Vanish

Series: Book #1 in untitled series
(Book #2, Valley of the Shadow, released this month, June 2009)

Author: Tom Pawlik

Genre: Adult Horror

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Vanish:

It all began with a feeling. Just an eerie feeling.

Conner Hayden peered out his office window at the hazy downtown Chicago vista. Heat plumes radiated from tar-covered rooftops baking in the midafternoon sun. A late-summer heat wave had every AC unit in the city running at full capacity.

He narrowed his eyes. Every unit except the one on the building across the street. On that roof, a lone maintenance worker in blue coveralls crouched beside the bulky air conditioner with his toolbox open beside him.

Conner watched the man toil in the oppressive August heat. Something hadn’t felt right all day. Despite the relative seclusion of his thirty-ninth-floor office, Conner couldn’t shake the feeling that he was being watched.

Three people are caught in a world inhabited by hallucinations and gray, faceless monsters.

The Craft: First, a caveat—I do not read very much fiction on this end of the speculative category. I scare easily (a by-product of my writer’s overactive imagination) and simply dislike the whole premise of the horror subgenre—i.e. a world with a very evil supernatural element from which there is no escape and no way out. (Christian horror adds the proviso of no way out except by the power of God.) As a result, my review will probably be slightly biased, if for no other reason than my inability to do comparable comparisons.

However, some elements of storytelling do not change. Characters, plotting, and descriptions exist in very genre, and many rules of good craft apply no matter the kind of story being told.

Overall, Vanish strikes me as a book with above average writing. Vividness, tightness, and clarity mark the craft at the micro level, while the characters are complex and the plot is convoluted (in a good way) at the macro level. I had difficulty putting the pieces together ahead of the characters, and the characters have plenty of surprised in store for the reader.

My one complaint is that, about halfway through the book, the tension sagged. My attention wandered, and I started to not care what happened to the characters. I think the major reason might be the stakes, those things the characters risk gaining or losing depending on the choices they make.

In a story, one key to keeping tension is to increase the stakes consistently; that at every step a character takes, what will be lost or gained becomes greater. For example, a character’s pet project might be in jeopardy at the story’s start. But as the story progress, not only does the project stand to be destroyed, but also the character’s job. Then things get worse and worse: They risk being blackballed by their industry, their reputation is shaky in the community, their family’s relationships are threatened, and finally they hazard their own life.

Vanish does a good job increasing the stakes at the beginning. But somewhere in the middle, those stakes plateau. It doesn’t matter the decision, the cost doesn’t increase significantly enough to maintain the tension. The resulting danger is loss of reader attention and the temptation to put the book down.

But if the reader will stick with the story, Mr. Pawlik quickly picks up the pace again in a hard rush to the end that will not disappoint.

The Content: Again, I don’t generally read these stories. So I may not be the most qualified judge. However, I found this story on the verge of suffocating and oppressive because of the levels of darkness.

Yes, I understand, this is necessary for horror. It’s one of the expected elements of the subgenre. And truthfully, I probably would have been fine too, if the book had ended differently.

As it is, the light was not sufficient for me to counterbalance the oppressive darkness. Rather, Vanish ends like a true horror: characters stuck with no way out. This gives the appearance of no hope and that the darkness has won—a direct contradiction of moral law. (Moral laws are those spiritual rules written into the world like scientific law—e.g. if you sin, you must die. In this case, the moral law being defied is that the light is stronger than the darkness and always wins in the end.) As a result, I finished the story with stomach churning and feeling quite ill.

I understand now this ending is in place because there is a second book in the series, Valley of the Shadow—originally I thought this was a stand-alone—so that helps. There’s still hope for everything to turn out. Nonetheless, I can’t help wondering if the story couldn’t have ended on at least a little strong note of light and hope. Maybe it could; maybe it couldn’t. I really don’t know.

(For more on my opinions on darkness in fiction, I strongly recommend reading the essay I wrote on that topic for an earlier tour.)

However, if you can get past the intense darkness and overbearing sense of hopelessness, Vanish is a strong story with much to say. There are many themes and thought-provoking topics embedded in it, such as making the most of time, death and life, the brevity of time, and the unpredictable nature of life because, quite simply, we don’t control it.

Summary: Some minor tension loss aside, Vanish is a powerfully written story that will be long seared into a reader’s mind. Only be forewarned: Caution must be exercised. This book is not for everyone as the darkness is intense, true to the horror genre, and the ending is incomplete, leaving a bitter edge of hopelessness in the reader’s mouth.

Rating: Craft—5, Content—2, Overall—3.2 out of 5 stars


Rebecca LuElla Miller said...

Well, I scare easily, too, and have also chalked it up to an overly vivid imagination.

I'd be curious at what point you thought thought the suspense lagged. I thought there were increased stakes as the "rash/bruise" spread and eventually others stared disappearing and more and more places proved to be unsafe.

And I thought the book ended on a decided note of hope. Granted, not for everyone, and certainly there are some unresolved threads which I assumed would be the thrust of the second book.

Interesting to see how the book strikes different people.

Oh, and thanks for the nod in you post yesterday.


Brandon Barr said...

Hi Chawna,
As always, as stimulating review!

Chawna Schroeder said...


I don't remember the exact time my mind wandered, but I think it was about the time of the first snatching in Indiana. It felt almost anti-climatic after the boy's disappearance, I wasn't attached to the character lost, and it didn't raise the stakes any or force a change in course.

As for the hope issue, as I tried to note in the review, the hope is probably sufficient if there's a sequel--which there is. I personally would have perferred the final chapter to be one of hope, instead of one that left you feeling like there was no way out, but then again, I'm not fond horror for that very reason.

Also, the feeling of hopelessness probably stuck harder with me, because I read the book with the expectations that come with a stand-alone, not realizing there was a sequel. So when I reached the end, those expectations were unfulfilled, especially in the need to end with the light and hope coming out on top. My intial hard reaction to the book has softened immensely after I realized this is a series, not a stand-alone.

I hope that clarifies some of my statments.

Steve said...

I had some trouble with the ending too; it did seem too dark. (In my "League of Superheroes" series, all the stories end on a note of hope, and I think that's proper for Christian fiction.) The story in general didn't seem over-dark, however; it was mostly the ending that was more clever than deep. (See my third post for more on the topic.)

I didn't hit the sag for some reason; the story as a whole worked for me, though again, the ending was troubling.