I’ll admit it, I expected this to be a straight-up rip off of Slender Man. A tall mysterious shadowy man who lurks in forests and takes kids? Check. Even the title sounds similar. Despite this, the summary sounded interesting and NetGalley kept emailing me about it, so I decided to see what the fuss was about. Besides, I like a good psychological horror because I am apparently a fan of scaring myself when I read just before bed.
I have never claimed to make any sense.
I got about 50% of the way through the book before I liked anyone even a little, and not much happened before then to grip my attention sadly. I understand that it’s a slow-building novel, with threads that cross over time to form a pattern, but the burn was so slow for the first half of the book that at times I thought the fire was out. The changing time periods and points of view confused me at first, they weren’t clearly marked or explained (bear in mind this was a Kindle file from Netgalley so maybe the formatting was off?) and towards the end a page might have been missing because two words that made no sense together ended and started two pages respectively. So a certain amount of leeway has to be allowed here for potential, and completely uninteresting, formatting issues. All formatting aside, the novel bounces between the filming of a murder documentary in 2018, the run-up to the murder in 2016, the events that started the whole ball rolling years before in an obscure British town with the world’s creepiest forest and extracts of a diary. I did enjoy the way the stories came together to explain how and why the murder happened, but there were areas that fell a little flat for me.
The book focuses on Sadie and Amber Banner, sometimes through their own eyes and sometimes through the eyes of those around them. We know that Amber, the girl being filmed for said documentary, has recently been deemed not guilty of murder, though she did kill someone, and that it all somehow ties in to The Tall Man and the effect the myth had on her mother. I was all ready for supernatural, psychological horror throughout, and there were parts of it I really liked – Sadie’s apparent delusions of the Tall Man whispering in her ear, of blood-covered children whispering words of warning over her newborn baby, the image of Amber appearing from the woods covered in the evidence of her crime and staring out over the lake – but parts of it dragged a little beyond enjoyment for me. We got more of the documentary crew following Amber around Disneyland than we did the murder – or the Tall Man, who we saw disappointingly little of given he is the namesake of the book, though what we did see of him was wonderfully creepy in a way that made you question if he was really there at all.
The chapters coming up to the end of the novel were great, the overlapping of those threads becoming clear, of how the children link to the family, link to the diary, link to the murder…but then it just sort of ended. I still don’t know if the Tall Man is real or just a shared delusion that culminated in the collapse of a family and the loss of several lives. On top of this, very few of the characters were likable at all – Amber put up a front, I understand that, but she’s not the nicest person anyway. You are encouraged as a reader to pity her by documentary crew member Greta, but really she’s a bit too flat, a bit too guarded and a bit too mean. It was only once that facade dropped at the very end that I found myself wanting to know anything about her – and her last words in the novel are ones that linger with you. Sadie’s delusions are frightening and vivid, and the scene where she sees the Tall Man in a cupboard as a child was one of my favourites, blurring that line between reality and nightmare through the eyes of a child. As an adult however she doesn’t seem to be much more than a drunk with a somewhat lacking personality of any kind, though a lot of this can be explained through trauma I suppose. Miles was likable for the most part, if unsettlingly optimistic for a man whose wife left him with a newborn at about 20 years old and then reappeared with no explanation fifteen years later. Leanna and Billie were interesting towards the end, and the last scenes they shared with Amber were tense and well-done – I just didn’t get enough of them for a truly lasting effect.
Overall, do I appreciate what the book is trying to do? Yes. Did it do it? Sort of. Would I recommend it? Not really. When the most enjoyable part of a book is the end, there’s something to be said there. Don’t get me wrong, I’d probably watch the documentary, and the twists towards the end were enjoyable enough, but it just hasn’t been one of my favourites.
Overall rating 3-3.5 books out of 5.