Signal Horizon

See Beyond

{Book Review} A Child Alone With Strangers by Phillip Fracassi

A Child Alone With Strangers by Phillip Fracassi

Philip Fracassi may not yet be a household name, but after A Child Alone with Strangers he will be. With four books set to drop in the next year, two short story collections and several novellas already in publication, his career is on a stellar trajectory. Fracassi is what Laird Barron calls a “master of narrative structure” and his range, prolific output, and fast-paced prose are all set to put him on the shelf next to names such as King, Straub, and Thomas Harris. Big names for sure but also authors who utilize a traditional narrative structure to write stories that have stood the test of time to become classic horror novels.

A Child Alone with Strangers, Fracassi’s nearly 600 page supernatural crime thriller, follows all the beats of a crime procedural but fills the story with both supernatural elements and very human moments of loss, fear, isolation and love. The novel follows the story of Henry Thorne’s kidnapping and the frantic efforts of the FBI and his guardians to bring him home. Fracassi seamlessly blends the coming of age elements with the supernatural, telling a story full of twists and turns that will keep you on the edge of your seat. A Child Alone With Strangers gripped me from the beginning and left me bleary eyed in the morning after a few late nights where I simply couldn’t put it down.

A Large But Full Cast of Characters

10 year old Henry Thorne has experienced a great deal of trauma in his young life. His mother died of cancer, and then Henry barely survived a murder-suicide attempt by his father. Now an orphan, Henry goe to live with his Uncle Dave and Aunt Mary. Dave and Mary are determined to protect Henry and nurture him back to health. But Henry’s troubles have only begun. Henry’s brush with death has left him with certain “gifts” that leave him socially isolated at school and worry the adults around him. When word gets out in the press about a sizable insurance settlement his aunt and uncle receive on his behalf it catches the attention of career criminal Jim Cady. Cady puts together a crew to kidnap Henry and demand the insurance settlement as ransom. The plan is nearly perfect, but Jim picks the wrong abandoned house to hole up in; this house is not vacant after all, and what lives in the basement wants Jim and his crew dead.

With a large cast of characters, it would be easy to get lost in the alternating point of view format of the story, but Fracassi’s characters all have clear, distinctive voices. It can also be difficult to write realistic child characters, and as much of this book is Henry’s story, Fracassi has to keep a delicate balance between writing realistic internal and spoken dialogue appropriate for a ten-year-old while keeping the attention of the readers. Fracassi is at his best when showing Henry as alternately a traumatized child and a preteen grappling with abilities he barely understands. He also shows Henry at times as defiant and unable to hold his tongue when it would benefit him, as can be true of most preteens.

Henry’s Uncle Dave grapples with the loss of his brother, Henry’s father. He struggles to mourn his brother while dealing with the anger at his brother’s decision to end his son’s life as well. We see less of Mary’s inner life, but recognize her as a capable, resilient woman who has fully embraced the role of mother to her nephew.

Jim Cady as Worthy Antagonist

Jim Cady is ruthless, brutal, and intelligent. The lengths he goes to in pulling off the ransom make it clear this is an all or nothing proposition for him, and as each part of the plot unfolds the reader knows that Jim will always make the choice to protect himself above all else. His crew includes Liam, who is a bit of a stereotypical “criminal with a good heart”, who is Henry’s tentative ally in that he is the only one of the crew that seems concerned with keeping Henry alive. Greg and Jenny are siblings with an unhealthy attachment to one another, but Fracassi makes even this plot point somewhat sympathetic in their shared traumatic childhood and fierce devotion to one another. Pedro rounds out the crew, and is the least flesh-out character for much of the story. However, Fracassi makes it clear through flashbacks and nightmares that he understands that even hardened criminals aren’t just “born bad”; these characters all come from impoverished, abusive childhoods that have caused them to dehumanize people. It takes a gift for storytelling to give a reader pangs of sympathy for the antagonists of a story.

But Jim’s crew are not the only antagonists. In a blending of dark fantasy and horror elements, we soon learn that Cady’s crew must face the creature who is gestating her offspring in the basement of the abandoned house they hole up in to wait out the time for the ransom drop. Is this creature a villain in this story, or simply a mother protecting her young at all costs? Are the actions she takes to protect her young any different than what we would do to protect our own children, or what the FBI and Henry’s family are doing to bring him home? Those are questions the reader will have to answer for themselves, but the story asks them in a way that leaves us aware that the answers are not so clear cut.

Just in Time For Halloween

A Child Alone with Strangers is an absolute page-turner. Fracassi’s style is straightforward yet evocative. He has an outstanding sense of place and atmosphere, making it easy to see the decrepit farmhouse, hear the boards creaking and hinges squealing, and even smell the damp mildew in the corners. This book doesn’t shy away from violence, including brutality towards children and animals that escalates into some truly horrific imagery in the final chapters. It’s a must read for fans of supernatural horror and crime thrillers alike. Readers should not be intimidated by the book’s length; it’s a fast-paced thriller that will keep you awake at night.

You can preorder the book so when it comes out on October 18 you will be one of the firsts to read one of the best books of the year.