It’s a hot and humid Georgia summer, and 10 year old Beau Jackson and his family have made their annual journey to the summer retreat of Gull Island. (Gull Island is not really an island, it’s a peninsula, but like the name of Gull Island, not everything is like it seems.) Beau’s family stays in the old home still occupied by his grandmother and they’re joined by his aunt and his odd cousin Sumter. The Jacksons seem like a typical albeit somewhat dysfunctional Southern American family, but that doesn’t take long to change. As Beau and Sumter begin spending time in a run down little garden shack which contains a presence which Sumter names “Lucy,” what starts out as innocent childhood fantasies slowly turns into something much more diabolical.
Neverland is an intense read. Douglas Clegg does a masterful job of capturing the feel of a hot Georgia summer. I felt the humidity and the stale smell of the old decaying swamps nearby. The picture Clegg paints of the out-of-favor tourist retreat is a vivid one and I had no problems picturing my childhood self running barefoot down scrubby sidewalks on the streets of Gull Island.
The way Clegg deals with tension in Neverland is a story in and of itself. Tension rises sharply and then drops suddenly, over and over. If it were a roller coaster ride, I would have already shared my breakfast with the people sitting next to me. At first I found this story style hard to get used to. I kept thinking “How many rugs does Clegg have, and how many times will he pull one out from under my feet?” About midway through the story it became apparent that the tactic was intentional. The attention span of a 10 year old, even one in terror, is short-lived. Once everything was deemed ok, the kids were quick to move on to the next thing. Each event built a little on the last, finally concluding into a crescendo of violence and terror. The story itself reads almost like a Young Adult novel, and at first I thought that was what I was going to get. That is, until the f-bombs were dropped, and the trailer trash started showing some nipple.
The characters of Neverland were also colorful and engaging. Clegg either has some southern ties, or has spent a serious amount of time around southern folk. The southern cultural touches stay consistent through the whole book. The cast stayed small, so the reader gets to know each character intimately. The only ones that were left out were Beau’s sisters, who remained off to the side for the majority of the plot.
I found Neverland, which would be marketed as dark fantasy or horror, to be a nice diversion from what I typically read. Although I was not disturbed by much in the book, I did find it intense and creepy. I’m not sure if that says more about me, and what kinds of things don’t scare me, or if I just felt too separated from the things going on in the story. Old veterans of horror will enjoy the read, but are not likely to find it any more or less scary than your average horror tale.
But it’s not the scare factor that makes Neverland special — it’s how the story is told. Clegg’s masterful weaving of reality and imagination through the mind of a child leaves you unsure of what’s the product of an overactive imagination or actually something evil. You truly get a feel for what Beau is going through with the moral ambiguity that can only come from 10 year old boys. I highly recommend you give Neverland a try. Its unique voice is something to be experienced and it will appeal to horror and fantasy fans both.