A fat, repulsive, cunning psychopath is stalking a bright, happy 12-year-old boy in a shopping mall in the middle of Iowa. Soon he will steal into the boy’s house in the middle of the night, chloroform him, and carry him off in a sealed van to his foul bungalow in the Hollywood Hills, where, in the soundproof chamber beneath the trapdoor, await the instruments of torture and dismemberment, along with the remains, in neatly stacked plastic bags, of 14 other boys. It’s a family’s worst nightmare. It’s something most of us don’t care to think about. It’s something many of us do care to read about, strangely enough.

Whitley Strieber is best known for Communion, his non ction, or nonsomething, account of being abducted by space aliens. He has also written the novels Catmagic and The Hunger. Like Stephen King, Peter Straub, and assorted Hollywood producers, Strieber is in the lucrative business of scaring people. Why do so many people pay good money for large doses of anxiety and terror? My theory is that our prehistoric ancestors spent several million years being scared out of their wits by saber-toothed tigers, thunder, darkness, etc., and so we have an inborn need for routine panic and the accompanying adrenaline. This raises another question. Why do I dislike novels and movies of this sort? I don’t know. Possibly my ancestors slept through the Stone Age.

Having disqualified myself from reviewing Billy, I must add that Strieber does a pretty good job with it. He has created a plausible monster. The character, Barton Royal, wavers convincingly between shrewdness and delusion, sentimentality and sadistic fury. He owes a lot to John Wayne Gacy, the serial murderer of teenage boys in a Chicago suburb who did a clown act for kids and had the bodies packed in the basement. He also owes something to Norman Bates of Psycho, including a mother-fixation and transvestite habits. The psychology supplied for him is laid on thick-repressed homosexuality, repressed paternal sexual abuse, punitive mother, denied-childhood — happiness vicariously recovered through captive boys, murderous rage when they fail to live up to fantasies — but it is persuasive.

Also plausible is Billy Neary, the kidnapped boy with his breezy self-confidence, computer obsession, and relaxed banter. And all the details of wholesome middle-class family life are perfect, down to the contents of the fridge. Strieber is especially acute in rendering the family’s gradual realization that the missing Billy isn’t just off on a lark: the growing apprehension, anger, and despair; the mother’s sudden recognition of herself as the sort of TV-news casualty she had once perfunctorily pitied. The implausibilities come from the plot’s standard cat-and-mouse game with the reader — the escape attempt that should succeed but won’t because this is only page 80, etc. At the end there is a whole symphony of melodramatic false notes, and psychology goes out the window. These are the conventions of the genre, which I still find unsavory. So I will end with the classic shoulder-shrugging reviewer’s line: For those who like this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing they will like. C

  • Book