After reading STRANGERS and his previous effort DARKBOUND, I’m beginning to get the impression that Michaelbrent Collings doesn’t like secrets. I mean, he really doesn’t like secrets – characters who commit dark acts and manage to get away with them by keeping them secret end up meeting messy fates, while those who eventually ‘fess up usually turn out a bit better. Like most good horror thrillers – and STRANGERS is very much a thriller in the slasher movie vein – it thrusts seemingly ordinary people into a horrific situation where they struggle to survive while being tormented by a brutal psychopath. The horror is ramped up because the killer seems to know everything there is to know about the intimate lives of each member of the family, even (especially) those things they don’t know about each other. It’s a genre that Collings does very well.
Some mild plot spoilers follow.
STRANGERS has a great premise: an “ordinary” suburban family – mom, dad, a teenage boy, and a teenage girl – are subjected to terrible torments inside their own home. Out of the blue, a madman has rendered them unconscious for an unknown period of time, done God knows what to them and their home, then sealed them inside their own house so they can’t escape. To top it all off (literally), he’s placed a termite tent over the whole house so he can play his sick games with them as long as he likes and no one will be the wiser. After all, who wants to go poking around inside a house that’s probably filled with poisonous gases just because you haven’t seen the neighbors in a while?
But I should clarify that, despite all appearances to the contrary, this family is not exact “ordinary” (is any family?) and, as I alluded to above, each member of the family has a secret. Because of these secrets they keep from each other, they are, in many ways, strangers to each other (hence the title). I’m not going to spoiler you on what these individuals’ secrets are; after all, those gradual reveals are part of the fun. Suffice it to say that these aren’t the ordinary kinds of secrets most family members keep from each other – someone snuck the last piece of cake, or one of the kids broke something and blamed the dog – these are no kidding, big deal kinds of secrets. The kind that unfortunately leave you open to being preyed upon by a madman with a twisted sense of justice (or one who just likes screwing with people). The madman’s plan for this family plays out in a fairly creepy, gory, and, I think, satisfying fashion. As always, Collings pulls no punches; his fans demand no less, I’m sure. This is certainly not a book for the faint of heart.
STRANGERS offers some interesting reflections for us. The family of the novel is able to be isolated and tormented because they are disconnected from the lives of everyone around them, even those closest to them. Aside from the obvious precipitating secrets they kept from their family members, we have no indication that any of their friends or family members were ever particularly worried about them when they went missing for a week, or did anything to help. If an entire family drops off the face of the earth for a week and their house becomes enclosed in a termite tent overnight with no warning, shouldn’t someone, somewhere do something about it? Wonder about the whole thing, maybe get suspicious, start asking questions, something? Anything? I think that Collings is also asking us to ponder if, in a sense, aren’t we all really strangers to each other? Sure, we know lots of stuff about the people around us, especially those closest to us. But isn’t it possible that even our loved ones could have a whole side to them that we don’t know about, and may never learn about, because we’re all disconnected on some fundamental level. And, by the way, shouldn’t we do something about that? STRANGERS is certainly recommended, especially if you’re looking for a well-done slasher novel with a particularly interesting premise.
Review copyright © 2013 J. Andrew Byers