Staying on task with my Spooky Sunday goals this week I read Neverland by Douglas Clegg. I found this book through a Halloween reads recommendation list and while it’s probably not something I would have picked up on my own it definitely made for interesting reading. Set during a summer vacation at their family’s ramshackle old mansion Neverland is a southern gothic horror story that follows the increasingly sinister games played by the narrator Beau and his odd cousin Sumter. Like the story from from which it draws its title this is a book about childhood and the price to be paid by growing up, albeit told in much darker way.
SPOILER WARNING: The following review contains minor spoilers for the plot of Neverland.
This is not perhaps a book I can say I enjoyed reading, but I am glad I read it. One of the best things about this book was the sense of atmosphere it built, within the first few chapters you begin to feel the oppressive tension brought about by the heat and the adults constant arguing in the same way the children do. This growing sense of dread builds further as the children’s games become more and more sinister until the book can feel almost unpleasant to read. While reading I felt myself longing to get to the end so that I could pick up something lighter but looking back this wish to escape does the book credit.
Another element I liked was that the form of horror used in the book felt unique. While there are things that appear to be ghosts and demons both the reader and the narrator are both left unsure what is real and what is imagined. The scenes inside Neverland hold a horrifying fascination as the children at the story’s centre slowly lose their innocence and become more swayed under Sumter’s power.The continuing uncertainty over whether these events actually happened as the children remember lends the book a dreamlike quality. As does the framing device of an older Beau narrating his childhood memories. How much of what you believe is real and what has been twisted by memory is left up to the reader. This occurs within the past of the story as well as the numerous conflicting accounts keep the reader unsure as what truly happened. The book has a good sense of its own mythology so that it feels as though there is a real history behind both its island setting and the family at its center.
One problem this book did have was that it was fairly slow to get going. While this works in order to build the atmosphere and establish the characters it also means that the second half of the book is much more exciting than what precedes it, which feels rather uneventful, especially for readers most interested in the horror aspects of the story. Additionally while the main characters are well rounded and sympathetic to an extent some of those on peripheral feel a little flat in particular Aunt Cricket and Uncle Ralph.
In terms of fear factor, Neverland can definitely be pretty disturbing in places with several gory and unsettling scenes which mainly involve children. If children acting in an alarmingly un-childlike manner is something which freaks you out this is probably one to miss. While I didn’t find too bad, I was also mostly reading this book on a well lit train and it probably isn’t something I’d want to read late at night in an empty house.
To sum up, Neverland works well as a twisted fairytale which while showing the perils of growing up also shows the darkness in the alternative. Although it takes a while to get to the true meat of the story, this time is used well to establish the setting and characters. While the story feels like a fresh take on the old coming of age horror tale, ultimately it is Clegg’s ability to create an almost unbearable atmosphere which makes this book stand out and is the reason why it stays with me.
Featured Image: Detail from the cover of Neverland © Ervin Serrano