There's nothing quite like a good monster story, and that's exactly what you get with The Silent End. In the tradition of the 'kids vs. the monster' trope most famously used by Stephen King, The Silent End rolls along on a mixture of teenage angst, troubled families, and outcasts doing their best to rid their small town of a terrifying "something."
The small town in question is Mossglow, a strangely spoilerific map of which is included among the first few pages. Thankfully, I didn't give the map more than a cursory glance until finishing the book, but many will and it seems like an odd inclusion—as it answers one of the book's mysteries before page one has begun. Put it in the last few pages maybe, but the front? That's just odd. Still, let's move on.
The novel begins on the night of Halloween, when the three main characters meet up for a night of trick-or-treating. Eberstark, the lead protagonist and the character through whose eyes we see this odd American town, meets up with his academically gifted friend, Gus Mustus. These boys are bonded through their shared status as outcasts and lovers of miniature gaming, in particular a game called Sword Star. This is addressed in the first few pages and at first seems like a frivolous add-on to round out the boys' geekery, but it later transpires that the game is essential to the plot. They're soon joined by their other friend Lexi, the odd one out in the group. While still an outcast she is much more of a hardened kid than the other two, the kind that could have easily fallen in with the bullies, and it's unclear for most of the book why she chooses to hang around with them. Before long we also discover that, as in all these kinds of stories, there are indeed some bullies who scare the living daylights out of our heroes, Charlene Poughkeepsie and Joe Ross—a pair of sadistic teenagers who live to cause trouble.
The background of the story is set up quickly. Eberstark and his family moved to Mossglow from Cleveland to open a grocery store. It all started out fine, his father becoming well loved among the community; but things started to go awry when his mother went missing, presumed dead due to a history of depression and apparent psychosis. With his mother gone, Eberstark's father started to become manic and obsessed with defeating the "penumbra"—his name for the monsters—and hung out with a mysterious mute called simply The Hat who helps him in "his underground bunker where he practiced what he insisted on calling 'science'"(p. 5).
Once these basics are established, Sattin doesn't hang around with the story. After telling us that Eberstark's father is convinced of the monsters' existence on the first page, it isn't long before the novel has Lexi suggest that, as a more exciting Halloween activity, they go in search of a monster she's been told about. Then Eberstark's father texts him to warn him there will be an explosion. Such is Samuel Sattin's way with words, however, that he makes you believe in his odd world within this very short space of time. The fact that the first monster appears early on is another testament to the fact that Sattin is great at pulling you into the madness without questioning it.
The structure of the paragraphs is key here, if rather jarring. There are no breaks between flashback and present action, which brilliantly adds to the dreamy, uneasy feeling that Sattin conjures up throughout the story. This feeling is key to making the reader buy into the events that unfold, as the characters all start to lose grip on reality in different ways. For instance, Sattin weaves flashbacks into the story throughout: in this way Eberstark is given plenty of emotional depth and the reader is slyly made to think, despite knowing that the monsters in the tale are real, that his father is probably mad. In this way, Sattin's way with words takes you into the nightmare completely, making you feel sick and disorientated with the characters:
The corridor distended and shortened, sometimes to the point where I had a hard time breathing . . . I heard voices that weren't mine . . . I misplaced my sense of direction not sure whether I was moving forward, down, or back the way I'd come. (p. 211-12)
Even the adults in this story provide little stability, most of them acting in suspicious or crazed ways. Just as Eberstark's father runs around with high tech weapons blurting out odd phrases and manic statements ("Never trust a man until you see he's asymmetrical." [p. 6)), Gus' mom and dad, who at first seem to be a regular dysfunctional couple, reveal hidden, twisted depths. The father, well educated and seemingly with the world at his feet, drives his wife mad by refusing to leave the dead-end confines of Mossglow. He insists he needs the quiet; she makes jabs at him about his unfinished book. Yet, in the wake of a horrible murder he just seems callous and looking for further excuses to stay in this hellish place. When Eberstark describes Gus' Dad, there are more signs that he might be more affected than he confesses: Eberstark mentions his "mustache had grown bushier of late. His eyes were crossed with veins. He looked positively wrecked with sleeplessness" (p. 187). Then he turns his attention to Gus's mother: "I could tell she had been weeping . . . She didn't look well. She looked pale. Scared" (p. 188).
Of course, if you're going to centre your story around children, you need to add some suspicious teachers and The Silent End has its share. There's Mrs Duncan, a friendly but hard-working Literature teacher who appears concerned for the children; but there's also Mr Kraft, the too-perfect Politics teacher who likewise expresses his concern for the kids' welfare but in a much too familiar way. He also turns up at Eberstark's workplace asking questions about the store and the town's history, pushing a little too hard.
We also get introduced to the Dean of Myers High, who is everything you'd expect a villain to be. Tall, intimidating, and with a smile that's either friendly or the kind a predator would use before tearing your face off. It's this painting of him in an almost clichéd way, that intentionally or not serves to throw you off. You know either he will be one of the bad guys, or the person who turns up at the last minute to turn things around.
Sattin's awareness of his inheritance is also contained in the way in which he takes advantage of his medium, creating a creature that's equal parts horrible and absurd. In any other sub-genre you'd risk falling over into the realm of comedy, but Sattin walks the line. (For an example of this going wrong, by the way, see the monster that runs down the hidden corridor in the hospital in Hellraiser. That must have looked great on paper.)
"It was draped in a cloak of slick fur… The cloak ended in a cowl that flopped over a bony snout . . . the body itself, a rubbery expanse of chalk-white skin, was mostly naked except for a set of paisley drapes that could have been stolen from someone's kitchen window . . . Sharp looking pieces of metal protruded from its arms and legs, they appeared to be part of the creature's biology. Under its chin though was the oddest part of all. Erupting from the bones was a massive flickering lightbulb." (p. 66)
Ripped from the pages of the book, given a naked description without a setting or build-up, this creature might seem daft, like a collage fashioned from a Laura Ashley catalogue and an issue of Famous Monsters of Filmland. Yet within the creepy setting of Graywood Forest and the obvious unnerved reactions of the characters, the monster becomes supremely creepy. Not scary, but creepy—which is in many ways better, and more suited to the book.
This swaying towards the creepy as opposed to the scary seems intentional, because later in the book there are stark descriptions of bloody scenes. With the rest of the book revelling in dreamlike, sometimes absurdist prose, when this incident crops up the tone of the book is sharply changed: it seems almost hyper-real. The swerve in tone reminds you that the monsters and the madness, although odd, have very real consequences. This is a big plus for the book. Although it is made clear that we are dealing with some very dangerous forces throughout—and almost every page could be splattered with blood and gore—Sattin holds back until the last, relying on tension and ominous feeling to keep you interested.
One of the main strengths of the book lies in the language, then, but it could also be seen as one of the novel's weaknesses. Sattin fills the book with beautiful descriptions that are almost poetic at times. His use of language conjures up some wonderful images, but the words he uses sometimes feel out of place—and as such in places the book runs the risk of falling fowl of the Dawson's Creek problem. What I mean by this is the protagonist is a young man, not out of his teens. By his own admission he is smart but not the most academically gifted, and, like the characters of a popular nineties teen drama, the words supposedly coming from this young man's mind don't match up to what you suspect a child of that age would be using. When he speaks, he talks in a more convincing manner, closer to the speech patterns of his friend, but this is completely differently to his narrative voice—and the mismatch is never resolved.
It becomes apparent that the substance, which Eberstark's father and The Hat label "murje," is not, though the catalyst for the phenomena that happens in the town, necessarily monstrous or evil—the monster in this book is human. Namely, it is Thomas Myers, founder of Mossglow. It's Myers who first discovered the murje, becoming obsessed with it, building monsters and weapons; but in the end all he wants is to bring his wife back from the dead no matter the cost. This cost unfortunately includes modifying the inhabitants of Mossglow to his own ends and taking its women to build a Frankenstein's monster of sorts, in the image of his deceased wife. We know that it's Myers who is the real monster because, when themselves infected with the murje, Eberstark, his father, and Gus manage to harness it for good.
The most interesting character in the book, however—and mainly due to his mysterious origins and seemingly endless knowledge of the evil—is The Hat. When you do discover where he came from it's a wonderful, heart-warming reveal and one that sets up the final section of the book brilliantly. While his apparently endless knowledge can at times seem a little too convenient, the very nature of what he is and where he's from is such a brilliant conceit that you forgive it all. That is, while The Silent End does have its fair share of clichés—the outcast teens ready to save the day, the suspect teachers, the terrifying authority figure—Sattin's threads of hope, loss, despair, and madness add much to the reading experience and makes this more than just another cookie cutter teen horror.
Indeed, the fact that this book is very much a cathartic experience for Sattin is kept no secret: the author used it to help deal with his mother's death—hence the central themes of loss and hope. He has written a story that expertly deals with these subjects, using the murje-induced madness as a substitute for the temporary insanity that grief brings. He dolls it up in a monster tale, and colours it with a light spattering of gore, but all in all The Silent End delivers a teen horror with a whole lot of heart.
Mark Granger also writes for music sites. You can find his most recent work at mark-granger.tumblr.com.