Reviewed by Johnny Butane
Written by Jeff Strand
Published by Leisure Books
Think back to when you were young. Not toddler age, but early elementary school, maybe junior high. Did you ever know a kid who was just a bit off? Someone who was maybe quieter than most, kept to himself and didn’t say much but when he did, it was the kind of thing kids that age shouldn’t think about? I knew someone like that, but thankfully not for very long. I can’t imagine what would happen if that kid kept showing up in my life over and over, waiting until I least suspected it before coming back to screw with my whole existence.
Alex, on the other hand, is a man who doesn’t have to imagine that because he lived it. Back when he was young, he stole some condoms on a dare, and because they never really knew what to do with him anyway, his parents decided to send him to boarding school. At first it seems horrible, but he quickly makes friends with the boys he shares a room with. Only one of them just doesn’t seem quite right, a kid named Darren Rust.
Alex is the only one who really talks to Darren. Because of this, Darren feels he can trust him and tells Alex the things that he won’t say to others, things that make Alex uncomfortable and just a bit scared of the bigger boy. Darren has a habit of sneaking out, and when Alex and his other roommates find him one night huddled in the bushes, knife in hand, performing some very unneeded surgery on a dog, things quickly go from strange to downright horrific.
The boys decide that, since Darren won’t confess to killing the dog, they need to scare him. The way in which they try this, however, manages to almost kill Darren and thoroughly freak out the rest of them, and now Darren’s only mission in life is to make them all suffer, though not in any physical way. Even though he’s only a child, Darren’s mind is twisted enough that coming up with ways of ruining the lives of his roommates and getting them thrown out of school is almost effortless, until only Alex is left.
Years pass. Alex goes to college on a full scholarship and tries to start a new life again. He meets a girl almost immediately and instantly the two of them have a connection. Unfortunately, he runs into Darren again as well, though now he’s a jock-type who is a lot more outgoing and a hit with the ladies. Alex eventually forgives him for what happened when they were kids, and the two become friends. But more bad things start happening, and pretty soon Alex realizes that time has not made Darren normal; if anything it has only sharpened his insanity. He forces Alex into the kind of situation that would probably make most of us insane, then disappears without a trace.
It all comes to a horrible end when we next meet up with Alex, out of college and married with a beautiful daughter. Their seemingly idyllic life is shattered once again when Darren makes his presence known, but this time he’s focusing on Alex’s innocent daughter. His sick and twisted plan comes to fruition in ways the reader likely won’t see coming, ways that force Alex to suffer through things most of us can’t even imagine.
Pressure is, in short, a masterpiece. Strand paints Alex in such a vivid and realistic light from the outset of the novel that you can’t help but become attached to him right away. You care about what he’s going through, feel his pain when he is sent away by his parents and eventually left alone at a strange school. You’re happy for him as you would be a best friend when he falls in love and becomes content with life, but there is a taint to it all because you know it’s going to end very, very badly.
What’s even more horrifying is how clearly and realistically he creates Darren as well. During the three periods that he is damaging Alex beyond repair, he acts like someone we can all relate to. Someone we may have known in school, someone who seems normal at first but has a very powerful darkness just below the surface. Darren is cruel but also smart. He knows he can get away with everything he does because he plans it all out so far in advance, leaving no room for mistakes. We learn this about him early on, and it only makes the horror Alex has to face that much worse.
The "pressure" of the book’s title is not just the pressure that Alex is under throughout his entire life; it can also mean pressure the reader feels, knowing the entire time that all the happiness and good things that happen to Alex are only fleeting. The ferocity with which these things are taken away from him is the only variable in events that will keep the reader on the very edge for the entire novel.
It’s all made somewhat tolerable, so the strain isn’t quite enough to kill you, because Strand also has a fantastic ability to make light of the situation. As a character, Alex is a bit of a smartass, so even when in the most horrific positions you can imagine some humor can be injected to release just enough pressure to keep you moving forward. I think without this well-timed humor the book might be too oppressive for some readers.
Bottom line? You do not want to miss Pressure under any circumstances.
5 out of 5
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