Dark Places by Gillian Flynn
It’s sort of stunning to me that Gillian Flynn didn’t really become famous until Gone Girl. Of course, Gone Girl is a masterwork of sorts, beautifully crafted and featuring amazing twists you never see coming. A glamorous disappearance; romance, kinda sorta; a complete takedown of Nancy Grace and exploitative media. It’s funny, twisted, clever and fascinating — the sort of book you stay up way too late reading.
But guess what? Gillian Flynn’s works have been funny, clever, twisted and horror-filled all along. Sharp Objects, her debut novel, is breathtakingly good. Her second book, Dark Places, sets up several themes that will recur in Gone Girl — namely, missing women, unexpected murder and pregnancy as blackmail.
The protagonist of the story is Libby Day, a physically and emotionally damaged young woman who survived what is known as the Kansas Farmhouse Massacre. Her mother and two sisters were brutally murdered, and her teenaged brother was imprisoned as a result. Just as she’s run out of money, she is approached by a young man who, along with many others, want her to get to the bottom of who really killed her family.
Dark Places is a sharp, tightly crafted novel that bounces back and forth between Libby, in the present day, and her brother and her mother, set the day of the murders. The story unwinds and unravels, revealing that the truth of what happened that day is more complicated than anyone had imagined.
It’s an easy read, but a good one. Libby is at once compelling and a little repulsive, but only because she consistently pushes the reader away as she does everyone in the book. She’s crippled by depression, unable to force herself to get out of bed every day, and beset by women who stalk her and villainize her for her testimony against her brother. And while telling Libby’s story, Flynn criticizes the self-help industry, exploitative media, and so-called child psychology experts who refuse to believe that children lie — and who (perhaps unwittingly) actually encourage those lies.
Warning: this is really a much more violent book than Gone Girl. It’s about an axe murder, for God’s sake, and there is a pretty demented scene in which a person smears the blood of murder victims, one of whom is just a child, over the walls of a house in Satanic symbols. But I think the gore in this case is justified, based on the impact that this central scene has had on every single one of the book’s characters. Without the horror here, the reader wouldn’t get why Libby is so damaged — or, indeed, the point Flynn is making about the potential for depravity in human nature.