Reviewed by Scott A. Johnson
Written by Douglas Clegg
Published by Vanguard Press
There are certain books that do more than entertain. They do more than tell a story or make some sort of commentary. From the first word to the last, these rare tomes connect with the reader on a level that is visceral, touching their innermost feelings of dread and dragging the reader along a fearful path. They place readers in the story so that they can feel the splinters in the boards, the bites of mosquitoes, the breath on their necks. Such books are few and far between and, without sounding too presumptuous, bridge the gap between fiction and literature. With Neverland Douglas Clegg has created just such a Gothic masterpiece.
Neverland is the story of Beau, a young boy who is trapped on a family "vacation" to a remote island to visit relatives. His cousin, Sumpter, is a holy terror of a boy, getting into mischief and lying his way from one misadventure to the next. On the property is an old shed, one the adults forbade the boys to enter, but boys will be boys. Within the shack is magic, terror, death, and something else: a presence that becomes increasingly dark as it demands sacrifices and warps reality into a deadly game.
Clegg seamlessly blends the normal world with the fantasy land that is inside the shed, which Sumpter named Neverland. In one instant the reader stands among saltgrass and mosquitoes, looking up at the imposing main house, and in the next he is breathlessly running from whatever it is that lurks inside the shed. It blends in such a way that the reader catches himself in the fantasy world, unaware of just when the real world ended. And what a world it is. Dark and twisted, deceptively innocent and benign, it is a world that wraps the reader in a heavy blanket of building dread.
One of the biggest strengths of Neverland is the vivid life given to the characters. Told from the point of view of Beau, it brings the reader in easily but refuses to let go. We are privy to his child-like thought processes in a way that makes it, at first, seem to be almost a fairy tale. Equally striking is the "bad seed" character of Sumpter. For some reason it seems that everyone has had (or at least knows of) a cousin the rest of the family thinks was just born bad. Clegg plays on the notion and makes Sumpter into a walking nightmare of a boy, all the while keeping him from becoming a parody of the character. To be clear, a wrong word or even a misstep in phrasing could have made the children one-dimensional, but Clegg expertly avoids paper-thin characters and gives us children so real that one almost cringes at the thought of their muddy fingernails and the dirt between their sweaty toes. Perhaps one of the strongest characters is also the most enigmatic. The character of "Gracie," the Goddess of Neverland, who is able to possess the minds of children and to warp their realities, leaves the reader guessing as to her true identity and is at once awesome and terrifying.
It is usually at this point in a review that the reviewer mentions any shortcomings of any novel or movie. However, Neverland has no such flaws. It is, from beginning to end, a damned fine read with nothing to pull the reader out of the story. It is elegant in its grimy beauty and leaves the reader shuddering in the dark when the last page is turned.
To say I was impressed with Neverland is a gross understatement. It is, in every sense of the word, a masterpiece of Gothic horror.
5 out of 5
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