Richard is an art teacher at an upscale elementary school in Virginia, where his new wife, Tamara, also teaches, and her son, Elijah, attends. He’s got a great job, is lucky in love, and now his 5-year-old stepson wants Richard to adopt him. Things couldn’t be better for the beloved teacher, until disturbing reminders of his long-buried childhood trauma begin to surface, threatening to destroy his newfound happiness and possibly even his mind.
In Whisper Down The Lane, author Clay McLeod Chapman toggles between Richard’s current life and flashbacks of his life-altering experience as a 5-year-old at the center of the “Satanic Panic,” the 1980s conspiracy theory that children were being abused in satanic rituals which triggered widespread panic and wild accusations all over the United States. We see from Richard’s perspective what he was thinking as a child and how he overcame what happened, earnestly reinventing himself into a mild-mannered educator and father figure. But there’s also interview transcripts from the 1980s of the boy giving coerced and leading testimony to his psychotherapist, the result of which caused the downfall of many around him and the end to life as he knew it.
With each back and forth that unveils more of Richard’s young life, the reader is left wondering whether someone from Richard’s past is out to terrorize him or if his long-suppressed memories are finally (and understandably) causing a nervous breakdown. Just when it seems like the story will lighten up, another dark aspect is revealed.
Chapman expertly taps into the hysteria of the famed “Satanic Panic,” creating a chilling, psychological thriller that keeps the reader guessing and worrying, wondering what’s real.
The “Satanic Panic” aspect alone is what drew me into this story, since not only did I live through it, but at some point it targeted just about everything I liked as a youth: heavy metal, movies & TV shows, Dungeons & Dragons. Throughout history, there’s always been these baseless “moral” witch hunts, and unfortunately, it didn’t end with the 1980s. We currently live in a time of Pizzagate, the debunked conspiracy that a former first lady was running a pedophile ring in a pizzeria’s non-existent basement; the Vaccine Microchip, the ridiculous belief that COVID-19 vaccine recipients are being injected with microchips that track them; and of course QAnon, the once underground conspiracy theory cult that’s spread so far and wide that even today’s grandmas were compelled to leave their homes to storm the U.S. Capitol Building in an effort to overturn the 2020 election results. And it doesn’t seem to be settling down any time soon, thanks to the ability to spread disinformation over social media posts, message boards, and Internet memes, as well as even through supposed reputable news outlets and via elected officials seeking further political gain.
All of this is why revisiting the “Satanic Panic” in Whisper Down The Lane is even more disturbing and eerie now, as history is seemingly repeating itself with once-rational people compelled by fear to believe the worst and even act upon those fears to dire consequences.
A note on the cover: I read an uncorrected proof ARC of the book, so I can’t speak to the full design (jacket, binding, print quality, etc.), only to the cover art. The book title is taken from the children’s game of the same name (aka the ”Telephone Game), where each child whispers the same sentence to the next child and by the end, the sentence usually ends up being different from the original. In the context of this story, it represents how an innocent fib can turn into something bigger. The cover has a black chalkboard background with stick figure chalk drawings, with children sitting in a circle playing this innocuous game. But in the center is a red pentagram, a symbol associated with Satanic rituals that here represents the “Satanic Panic” accusations of the 1980s, and therefore this game being played is more nefarious.
From the publisher:
Inspired by the McMartin preschool trials and the Satanic Panic of the ‘80s, the critically acclaimed author of The Remaking delivers another pulse pounding, true-crime-based horror novel.
Richard doesn’t have a past. For him, there is only the present: a new marriage to Tamara, a first chance at fatherhood to her son Elijah, and a quiet but pleasant life as an art teacher at Elijah’s elementary school in Danvers, Virginia. Then the body of a rabbit, ritualistically murdered, appears on the school grounds with a birthday card for Richard tucked beneath it. Richard doesn’t have a birthday—but Sean does . . .
Sean is a five-year-old boy who has just moved to Greenfield, Virginia, with his mother. Like most mothers of the 1980s, she’s worried about bills, childcare, putting food on the table . . . and an encroaching threat to American life that can take the face of anyone: a politician, a friendly neighbor, or even a teacher. When Sean’s school sends a letter to the parents revealing that Sean’s favorite teacher is under investigation, a white lie from Sean lights a fire that engulfs the entire nation—and Sean and his mother are left holding the match.
Now, thirty years later, someone is here to remind Richard that they remember what Sean did. And though Sean doesn’t exist anymore, someone needs to pay the price for his lies.
Book Dimensions: 6.26 x 1.08 x 9.29 inches; 304 pages