Would a bookish 1970s adolescence have been complete without taking on Thomas Tryon’s The Other? Aside from Judy Blume’s lurid chronicles of puberty and John Jakes’s racy historical sagas, nothing was as eagerly passed among the newly voracious readers of Ms. Katz’s sixth-grade classroom as this classic novel of horror, which trafficked in some of the occultish frights (malevolent children, ceremonial killings) to become associated with the era. A solitary thirteen-year-old in an isolated Nebraska village was equally absorbed: Dan Chaon, future novelist and National Book Award finalist, who would also grow up to write the afterword to the The Other’s 2012 New York Review Books reissue. No mere artifact of mass-market schlock, Chaon writes, The Other is a serious meditation on childhood, death, and especially how we human beings recollect: “[O]ur well-remembered pasts...are each a little Atlantis, sinking into the sea; a memory, that, on second thought, was never accurate anyway.”
The multifariousness of memory—its mutability and insistent unbidden-ness, its maddening elusiveness and acknowledged unreliability—is a thematic staple of Chaon’s fiction. What he’s interested in is not how we draw on the past to make sense of the present, but whether we should even buy into the notion that we can. If memory is a set of subjectively authored stories, the tales endlessly reshaped by private retelling, how can it be a guide to the objective reality of now? Why should we believe that what we have in our heads is true? Chaon has mined this premise across a distinctly unsettling body of work, to which his novel Ill Will is a thrilling addition.
Among the virtues on display are some that seem to get short shrift in contemporary literary fiction, such as breakneck plotting built around characters truly in extremis. Add to this that Chaon doesn’t shy away from reliably disconcerting tropes of genre horror: twins, amputees, corpses, and serial killers, to name a few. There is nothing supernatural, though there is the periodic truly terrifying image. But lest readers think Chaon is just Stephen King with some Raymond Carver in his back pocket, Ill Will also examines modern, troublingly common horrors like intergenerational poverty, sexual abuse, and opioid addiction. It would be too much to call it a social novel, but as Atticus Lish did with Preparation for the Next Life (2014), Chaon compels readers to consider the forces that helped bring about the circumstances in which his characters find themselves. “Disproportionate numbers of bad things happen to people who are economically disadvantaged,” observes one as she enumerates the tragedies that have befallen the protagonist’s family.