DISCLAIMER: I am a MA in Writing Student at Rowan University who has recently had the opportunity to study under Professor Atwood. The following review may be biased.
When I saw that I would be required to read MC Atwood’s debut young adult novel, The Devils You Know for my Seminar II class this semester as part of my MA in Writing program at Rowan University, I was very excited. Last fall I had a wonderful experience studying under Professor Atwood by taking her Writing Genre Fiction course. Atwood is hilarious and one of the kindest individuals I’ve ever met. She is also seriously talented as both a writer and an editor.
The Devils You Know was a real pleasure to read. I love that while the book is Atwood’s favorite genre – horror – it is also still young adult. While terrifying, it was also extremely relatable. This novel is about more than a creepy haunted house with scary clowns and dolls (seriously…so many dolls…). It’s a story about friendship and finding yourself in the midst of the terror known as high school.
In the beginning of the novel, Paul, Violet, Dylan, Ashley, and Gretchen don’t know each other very well for the most part. Paul is seen as being the cool black guy that everyone loves. Violet is the quiet “nice” girl that no one knows very well, but Paul has a crush on, and she is beginning to develop feelings for as well. Dylan tries a little too hard to be a bad ass and I can really see him as being a bit of a punk rocker/skater kid. Ashley is the stuck up, rich, right-winged Republican princess that owns the school and absolutely HATES Gretchen (the feeling appears to be mutual), and Gretchen is Dylan’s partner whom is every bit as weird and tough as he is.
The quintent rarely ever crosses paths and most certainly wouldn’t call each other friends. However, when the opportunity to visit the legendary Boulder House on a class field trip presents itself, all five members of the group sign up and find themselves forced to not only share in the same space and experiences, but to also work together as a team and get to REALLY know the truth about each other. Sometimes the truth can be completely alarming and sometimes you think you know someone (as is the case of Dylan and Gretchen), but later realize you don’t know that person at all.
For instance – who would’ve guessed that Paul likes to wear tights and role play during medieval events? Nice girls finish last…and get taken advantage of as seen by the way Mr. Rhinehart takes advantage of Violet by having an affair with her the day she turns 18. Dylan is not actually Dylan at all…he’s John Michael…and despite his foul mouth and constant use of the word “yo”, he’s not as tough as he wants people to think he is. He’s actually a very conservative Christian who attends church every week with his rich parents. On the other end of the spectrum, Ashley isn’t the conservative Christian she wants everyone to believe she is. In fact, she’s gay and she’s trying everything to hide her true identity from everyone, especially her Republican parents. After all, her father IS a well-known senator who HATES anyone that’s not straight. If he knew the truth about her it would destroy him and the rest of her family. What’s worst – she doesn’t hate Gretchen at all. In fact, she’s in love with her. As for Gretchen? She’s tough because she has to be, not because she wants to be. Her family is on food stamps and she makes her own clothes because she has no choice. Her mother is ill and the family constantly struggles with money.
In order to survive the house and everything in it – from demonic angels to creepy evil dolls to scary clowns to even whales and everything in between, the quintent must work together. However, when the quintent’s secrets are revealed to one another, they all feel such a strong sense of shame that they want to go through the house alone. However, they later learn that while they each have their own secrets, it doesn’t make them less and if anything, knowing the truth about who they are is what will not only bring them closer together, but also force them to want to stick together to support each other and to make it out of the house alive and beyond the house, to make it through high school alive, too.
Some of the novel’s strengths lie in the extreme attention to details, particularly with the imagery and descriptions of the house. It’s a very unique and clever book that while sticking to the main conventions of the horror genre, doesn’t fall into the trap of cliches. For example: there’s an entire room dedicated to whales and aquatic lives. I’ve never been afraid of whales and squids/octapuses, but I am now! I also really appreciated the way the novel took the very successful risk of having multiple narrators/points of views. Each chapter was told by a different character – Ashley, Gretchen, Dylan, Violet, and/or Paul. This allowed the reader to get up close and personal with all of the characters. Atwood did a great job of breaking them all down and creating an equal balance between each character’s voice so it never felt like you had too much of one character and not enough of another character. It also never got too confusing or overwhelming; five seemed like the perfect number.
So why four stars and not five? While I really enjoyed this book and struggled to put it down, it wasn’t perfect. There were still some things that bothered me with this book. One of the main things I didn’t like was Dylan’s character. He really annoyed me. I didn’t like his dialogue and I had trouble believing that’s how he would actually talk. I think there was an instance in the beginning where he said something along the lines of “I remembered to turn my swag on” which made me cringe. Do people even use the term “swag” anymore? I thought that died around 2008. “Fuck-a-doodle-doo” also sounded really awkward to me. I could believe him saying it once or twice, but constantly throughout the book? And no one ever comments on how weird it sounds? I had trouble buying it. Lastly, by the end of the book I was really annoyed by his constant use of the word “yo”. I think he said it but I feel like that would be something he’d say in the beginning of a sentence, not the end and reading it vs. hearing it – it reads kind of awkwardly and annoyed me as a reader. Lastly – his name is something completely different than what everyone calls him and no one knew this? I feel like the school would at least have his legal name down and probably call him by it on the first day of class. I just didn’t buy that as being his secret.
Also, reading this as a conservative Christian, I realize I’m a little biased but I did take some issues with the content of the novel. At times I felt like I was being attacked based on my views and like I was supposed to apologize or feel bad about being a conservative, Republican, Christian. I go to church every week the way Dylan/John Michael did – I don’t think that’s a “bad” thing in itself.
Lastly, demonic/fallen angels? The angels which are typically symbols for good, were made into symbols for evil. I wasn’t really okay with that imagery. I felt like the idea of Christianity throughout the novel was being shown in a negative light. Some of the jabs against Christianity/Republicans (such as the subtle George Bush reference…) felt a little over-done/cheap. I also thought of the impact/influence they may have on the novel’s target teenage audience which made me a little uncomfortable.
But overall I did really like this novel. It was very well researched, well written, and engaging. 4 out of 5 stars.