There’s horror and then there’s horror. By that I mean there are novels that fit within the horror genre, with overt applications of “scary” and “suspenseful”, and then there are novels that are generally horrifying, with an ability to elicit dread from a reader. It is the latter category that Sarah Lotz’s first solo novel, The Three, falls into. Published by Hodder & Stoughton, a imprint of science fiction and fantasy in the UK, The Three is not some tale of supernatural goings on so much as its the story of humanity’s willingness to project its insecurities on the most vulnerable.
It begins with an American woman flying to Japan to visit her daughter. Pamela May Donald is overweight, self conscious, and deeply Christian. When her airplane crashes into a wooded area she isn’t killed instantly. Instead she finds herself broken beyond repair and dying. Capable of recording a final message on her smartphone, Pamela calls out to Pastor Len. At the same moment, around the world, three other flights crash. Only three people walk away. Three children whose survival is as improbable as the Rapture, which is rather the point when Pastor Len interprets Pamela’s last message as a warning straight from Revelations.
What begins as a mystery surrounding the untimely demise of four different airliners quickly becomes an outright battle between conspiracy theory nutjobs, religious zealots, and self-interested ambulance chasers hoping to make a buck off others’ tragedies. But, rather than tell the story through a traditional narrative, Lotz utilizes the book within a book technique, where her narrator is Elspeth Martins, famed biographer and sensationalist. Elspeth assembles transcripts of interviews she conducted, republished blog posts and editorials, and a few extracted instant message conversations. See, The Three isn’t just a story. It’s a constructed story. It’s a story with its own bias as told through the lens Elspeth Martins constructs. What’s real? What has Elspeth left out in her telling? What’s the other side of the story?
Pastor Len and his cohorts believe the three children who survived Black Thursday are the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and the fourth child need only be found to make it true. It’s an incredible story, isn’t it? And one Elspeth indulges throughout her book. One of the children’s caretakers is struggling with his new charge. Never before a parent, just a struggling gay actor, Paul Craddock fears he isn’t equipped to raise a child. But, how could anyone be equipped to raise a child who’s been through what little Jessica has? Elspeth chooses only to portray these intimate moments of self reflection when they most suit her narrative. We’re not privy to Paul and Jessica’s good times, only their bad. Are Jessica, and Bobby, and Hiro, really creeping monsters waiting to snatch humanity’s immortal soul or are they deeply wounded children whose lives have been indelibly marked by their unlikely, neigh impossible, survival?
It’s that question that sits at the root of The Three. Because of the medium through which the reader views Lotz’s story, the novel becomes a commentary not just on the lengths to which humanity will sink, but also on the nature of celebrity and modernity, on the ease with which the world’s population will accept a story reported as true, on how deeply linked media has become to truth teller. “If it’s on the internet, it must be true,” as the axiom goes. What’s truly horrifying though is the projection of fear and hate and insecurity on the those most ill-equipped to face it. The Three could be anyone. In Lotz’s novel they are emotionally eviscerated little children. In our world they are Mexican immigrants crossing into America to make a better life, or activists willing to speak up against a corrupt North Korean regime, or women in oppressive culture demanding a chance to go to school, or gay couples daring to want equality in the eyes of the law. And the oppressor could be the religious right, or alien groupies, or mentally ill adoptive parents. Or, it could be me and it could be you. Therein lies the rub.
What’s incredible about Lotz’s novel is that it allows me to write a review way I have. It’s biased. I’ve crafted it in such a way that disposes my reader to believe this is a novel about something mundane. Horrifying, but explainable. Is The Three about children taken advantage of by a culture unwilling to let them grieve and find peace with their tragedy? Or is it something more? To a large degree Lotz will leave that decision up to you. Like any novel meant to unsettle and terrify, The Three succeeds most in ambiguity. Because what’s more scary than the unknown? Fear is in the potential energy of a bullet in a gun pointed at its target. Once the gun is fired its a thing to be dealt with, survived or not. The fear is in the waiting. Is it a bullet, or a demon possessed child, or a scared kid torn apart by public scrutiny? I don’t know. I guess it depends on what scares you most.
Trust me when I say, The Three will help you find out. It is, without a doubt, one of the finest pieces of horror I’ve ever read.