At Halloween, The Guardian published an article by the writer Joseph D’Lacey, where he shared his favourite horror novels. Number one on that list was this absolutely gripping and disturbing gem, the only book Mendal Johnson wrote before he died of cirrhosis of the liver. This is one of the best books I’ve read this year, if not in any year, it’s so shocking and brilliant.
The book is based loosely on the 1965 torture-murder of Sylvia Likens, and as the cover of the paperback sensationally tells us, ‘tonight the kids are taking care of the babysitter’. Twenty year old Barbara is on her summer break from college, and has been employed to look after Billy and Cindy Adams while their parents are away in Europe. Barbara is perky and pretty in her summer dresses. Training to be a teacher, she anticipates a couple of weeks of playing with the kids, making sure they’re washed and fed, and going swimming in the afternoon. Her conceited complacency is interrupted rather rudely when she wakes up one morning to discover she has been bound and gagged, and is being held captive by the Adams children and their three friends John, Dianne and Paul. Ranging in age from ten to seventeen, these children have christened themselves the ‘Freedom Five’. It soon becomes clear to Barbara that the world has been turned upside-down, and that she is one adult who is no longer in charge. These seemingly average children are conducting an experiment, and are surprised at the ease at which they have up-ended society’s convention. As Bobby says to Barbara on one of his guard duties, “Like when we were all figuring out if we could do it, it seemed like something we had to do. Like if you think you can do something, you have to”.
What follows is a grim and relentless exploration of how this swing in power plays out, as the book shifts from Barbara’s perspective to each of the children’s, and back again. The children are prepared to deal with the consequences of their actions, but because they are children they live utterly in the moment, and don’t hold back from escalating the situation. In the course of her captivity, Barbara is tested to the limit physically and mentally, as the children inflict bodily and psychological torment on her. Over the course of a few days her smug little personality disintegrates (the passages where she holds imaginary conversations with her college roommate are revealing and tragic) as she realises that she can’t bully, cajole or frighten the children into freeing her. Each of them has different motivations for embarking on the course of action that sees a young woman tied to a bed and tortured, and they have very different reasons for not wanting to let her go, despite the sadness and affection that some of them feel.
Let’s Go Play at the Adams’ is not for the faint hearted, the dense and intense prose pulls you in and doesn’t let you go. The mounting sense of dread is unremitting, and as I read the book I was shocked and unsurprised all at once. Perhaps this is where the true horror lies, that it isn’t a surprise that these children behave in the way they do. People, however young they are, have infinite capacity for cruelty, and ultimately, self-preservation.