There is nothing more disconcerting than the feeling that someone is watching you. Nothing will bring a chill up your spine faster than the sense that someone is lurking — around a corner, behind a door — and they can see you, but you cannot see them. Yet you sense their presence, perhaps even smell familiar odors such as cigarette smoke clinging to their clothing, and are confident they are near, but you cannot locate them. Sometimes a sound gives away their general location, but before you can reach the spot, they vanish.
Rebecca Underhill is sensing the foreboding presence of the man with whom she and her identical twin sister, Molly, had a horrific encounter 30 years ago. As the story opens, the anniversary of that terrible day is fast approaching, and Rebecca writes a letter to Molly, who died several years earlier, after dreaming about the incident. In recent days, Rebecca has been receiving strange text messages from an unidentified caller. At first the messages said only her name. More recently they have said, “Remember.” They have so unnerved Rebecca that she even begins to ponder — hopefully — whether Molly could possibly be sending them from heaven.
Soon Rebecca begins having very realistic nightmares in which she hears noises in her apartment, her cell phone vibrates with a new text message, and she even smells the ashtray-like scent she associates with the man she and Molly called “The Monster.” For many years, Rebecca has believed that he is dead. After all, he was convicted of other, similar crimes and sent to prison many years ago where, Rebecca reasoned, he must have died. So when Rebecca’s ex-husband, Michael, a crime novel writer, searches an online database and learns that Joseph Whelan is not only not dead, but was released from prison, is on parole, and living in the area, Rebecca’s fear intensifies.
Rebecca and her partner, Robyn, operate a local art center where one of their most gifted and accomplished artists, an autistic savant named Franny, has begun coming to work more often than is his routine. He presents Rebecca with a painting depicting the woods behind Rebecca and Molly’s childhood home where they encountered Whelan all those years ago. In the painting, Franny has placed a word that only Rebecca seems to readily discern. Rebecca is alarmed because, although Franny grew up not far from her own childhood farm, neither she nor Molly ever told a soul about what happened in the woods on that horrible day. They never even told their parents, largely because their father, a state trooper (Trooper Dan), had sternly warned them never to venture into the woods beyond their own property. It was because they disobeyed his orders that they experienced the most terrifying day of their lives. So how could Franny possibly know about that day? And why is he suddenly presenting his paintings to Rebecca, each depicting another aspect of the woods and the ramshackle house in which she and Molly first met Whalen? And why is he embedding a single word into each painting? Is Franny trying to warn her that Whalen is stalking her?
The Remains is just plain scary. So if you like to turn down the lights, burrow under the blankets with a flashlight, and wonder if you really just heard a noise coming from the other part of the house or if it was merely your imagination because the book you are reading is so engrossingly frightening, The Remains is the perfect book for you.
The Remains is also impossible to put down once you begin. Author Vincent Zandri has crafted a story that will make the hair on the back of your neck stand up. At the outset, Rebecca, now in her early 40’s, is unsure if she is dreaming, awake or in that curious netherworld between the two when she encounters the monster from her childhood. She questions whether, while lying in her bed, she really saw someone in her apartment, actually smelled him. If you live in a home equipped with an alarm, you will also probably find yourself arming it before going to sleep. The Remains is just that realistically creepy.
Fortunately, few of us have an event in our past such as the one experienced by Molly and Rebecca when they were preteens on an adventure into the woods that their father had warned them about. Trooper Dan never told them why he did not want them to wander onto the property adjourning theirs. He did not want to frighten his young daughters, and the fact that Zandri does not reveal to his readers the history of that property and its former residents until almost the end of the book is a stroke of genius that keeps the reader guessing . . . and imagining all sorts of horrific scenarios.
For a quick moment I thought about looking into the rear view. But I resisted the urge. Better not to see what was behind me; what might have been stalking me.
~ Rebecca Underhill in The Remains
Zandri tells the story through a combination of dream sequences and flashbacks. They begin as snippets that are little more than teasers. Rebecca sees herself walking through the woods behind Molly. Interspersed with Rebecca’s first person narrative describing current happenings, the events of that fateful day 30 years ago unfold slowly, again allowing the reader’s imagination to run wild, eager for the revelation of Whalen’s unspeakable acts. Finally, Rebecca can no longer keep her fears to herself and reveals the secret to Michael, with whom she maintains a close relationship. (In a recent interview, Zandri revealed that his own relationship with his former wife was the inspiration for the story.)
The action is unrelenting, as Franny presents Rebecca with a new painting each day, causing her to question whether he might have observed Whalen’s actions all those years ago, but was unable to report what he saw. Zandri masterfully unlocks the pieces to the puzzle gradually, answering one question even as that information raises a whole host of new inquiries. He injects elements that make the reader question whether the villain from the past is the same one who is currently menacing his protagonist, keeping his readers guessing — and pressing on to the next chapter — right up to the very last page. And along the way, he pays homage to one of the greatest books of all-time, To Kill A Mockingbird.
Whalen’s character is largely undeveloped. He is pure evil, but Zandri does explain how, a child, he was transformed into a monster. Zandri makes Whalen exquisitely menacing by having him communicate with his victims through the lines of a familiar Mother Goose nursery rhyme:
Three little kittens they lost their mittens, and they began to cry
“Oh mother dear, we sadly fear that we have lost our mittens.”
“What? Lost your mittens you naughty kittens!
Then you shall have no pie.”
Through Rebecca, Zandri offers readers a realistic glance at how terrifying being stalked — a contemporary problem — can be for its victim. Rebecca’s inner dialogue, as she struggles to discern what is real from what she may be imagining because of the trauma she suffered so many years ago, rings terrifyingly true. In that aspect, The Remains is a cautionary tale. One truly cannot be too careful because we literally do not know who might be watching our movements, studying our habits, and lurking in places we would never suspect.
The Remains is a perfect example of the old cliche “less is more.” Zandri does not rely upon graphic violence or gratuitous coarse language to tell his story. Rather, his writing is restrained and nuanced. As one reviewer aptly described it, Zandri’s brand of “terror doesn’t show itself freely in the mirror or window but, rather, whispers ominously in your ear.” It is those whispers, coupled with a couple of gusts of wind sending a branch knocking against a window and, perhaps, a creaky hinge or two, that will inspire you to sleep with the lights on after reading it. I did. It is easily one of the scariest books I have ever read, which is why I highly recommend it.
I read The Remains in conjunction with the 2010 Read ‘n’ Review and the Fall Into Reading 2010 challenges.