Maybe it’s because I lived in Los Angeles so long, but I find that filmmakers make great storytellers so I love reading their novels. The good ones have learned the art of cutting through all the superfluous stuff to get right to the heart of the story. Henry Turner’s debut novel, Ask the Dark, is a great example of that ability. It’s a novel about redemption which asks the question, “What would a teen who’s a known liar and petty criminal have to do to regain his community’s trust?” Ask the Dark is also one hell of a scary novel, which kept me up all night. Hell, if I’d put this psychological thriller down then I’d have been up all night anyway because it really got under my skin. I hesitate to say that it’s a YA novel intended for ages fourteen and up, because adults are going to get into it every bit as much as teens. Sound interesting?
Fifteen-year-old Billy Zeets never met a rule he wasn’t at least tempted to break, and he’s broken a lot of them. After all, in a world where the deck seems stacked against him, he had nothing more to lose. You might be right if you said he’s known as the town bad boy who most adults concur will never amount to anything. Now he’s in the hospital and everyone’s saying he’s a hero. How on earth did that happen? It’s certainly something he never expected to have happen, that’s for sure.
Like in a lot of small towns, when Billy’s family fell on hard times, people who used to be considered friends stepped well away from them as if what happened to them were somehow contagious – even Billy’s former friends wanted nothing to do with him. Billy calls those times “the big mess.” What most people don’t realize about Billy is that he’s the same kid he always was deep down underneath. Life dealt him some blows he wasn’t equipped to handle. It’s why his family fell apart, and why he’s desperately trying to earn enough extra money doing small odd jobs to save their house. He’s determined to keep what’s left of his family together no matter what it takes. It’s a financial battle any adult would know he can’t win at this point but he knows it’s all up to him and he’s determined to give it everything he’s got.
“The fact is, I ain’t no hero, and I aim to prove it. What I done, if I done anything, was get my daddy a fruit stand. See, my daddy was feeling bad and needed money and couldn’t do for himself, so I done it. And to tell this right you gotta know about that, and other things too, like about us losing the house and what my sister done…You gotta know all that, ‘cause if you do, everything else I say will make sense. Sort’f add up, know what I mean?”
“…when all this was going on and I was trying to make all that money to save the house, I don’t think a day went by that I didn’t say to myself, I gotta get that fruit stand! Gotta get my daddy that damn fruit stand.
Scuze my language.
And after the lady [on TV] told ‘bout her dream, she said one more thing. I liked it.
She said, If I did it, you can too!
That’s just how I feel. And that’s why I ain’t no hero. If I did it, you can too. ‘Cause I ain’t better’n nobody.”
In a way, the town should be thankful Billy’s doing those odd jobs because that’s when he begins to notice things no one else seems to be noticing – just little things at first – and that’s also when he begins to realize something horrible is happening in their small town. First, one by one, boys he knows begin to go missing. Not a lot of them, just a few.
Then one day, he finds the body of one of the missing boys, which freaks him out so much that he doesn’t tell anyone. Why not? Because the town and the police could very well blame him for the boy’s death and he can’t take that chance, not if he’s going to save his family and not if he’s going to find the killer. And he’s beginning to think he might have some clues about who that killer is.
Billy knows no one will listen to him, and why would they? He’s told enough whoppers to pave the roads of his town with lies. Besides, the police in this town couldn’t find their butts most of the time so he seriously doesn’t think they’ll be any help even if a miracle happened and they believed him. Nope, it’s all up to him and he’s got to act quickly before more boys end up dead.
There are only a few problems with Billy’s plan. What if the killer finds him before he finds the killer? And, even if he finds the killer, how is he going to rescue the missing boys without getting killed himself? Not so minor a detail…
On the surface Billy is rough and foul-mouthed. He does not seem like the boy you’d like to have living next door. He definitely seems like a very unlikely hero but he’s actually the epitome of a hero, someone who steps up despite all the reasons not to do it. And, believe me, he’s got a million reasons not to help those missing boys, who for the most part were not particularly nice to him, or to try to catch a killer, which everyone else thinks is the police’s job. He goes for it anyway, which says one hell of a lot about who Billy is underneath everything else.
“Then he [Sam Tate] looked at me and said, ‘The real thing is, you’d never have done it, never even found out about it, if you hadn’t done all the things people hated you for. It turns out those were the right things to do, Billy. Isn’t that funny? All that stealing and never going to school. It’s what made it so you were outside a lot, seeing things nobody else saw. Hidden and secret things.
He was dead-on right with what he said. I laughed. I saved three boys, so they tell me…And Sam says I’d never of done it, ‘cept I was always stealing and busting things, and creeping around people’s yards at night. That is funny.
But I s’pose it’s true.”
It doesn’t not ease the tension in this riveting, horrific thriller at all to know from the beginning that Billy survives his ordeal. *shiver* Ask the Dark is the scariest YA novel I’ve ever read, and it has an equally amazing message of redemption. I would never suggest that anyone catch a serial killer as a way to gain redemption, however. Nope, the underlying message for me is that we need to stop judging people, especially kids, for their circumstances – there’s good in everyone – some of us just feel we have to hide it under protective armor. If you or a teen you know loves a good scare with a happy ending (you already know Billy survives), then you’ll probably want to put Ask the Dark on your summer reading list.
Can’t wait to read it?
Ask the Dark was published on April 7, 2015, so it’s available in all formats from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). If you download it as an ebook, you can have it to read immediately.
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