Thursday, October 8, 2015

Secret Strangers - Thomas Tessier

He had been kind of a secret stranger in their lives, someone who could accept love and apparently give it in return, a person they knew mainly in terms of their own expectations, and didn't really know at all. 

Dark Harvest 1st Edition 1992
 Secret Strangers by Thomas Tessier would likely be found in the horror shelves of the bookstore, only because Tessier is primarily known for his horror novels. But I'm telling you, this is straight up noir, and I mean depraved nasty twisted noir. I found a copy of this book some years back and knew it was coming home with me.

Tessier's best known novel is probably The Nightwalker, about a Vietnam veteran in London who may or may not be a werewolf. Then there is his ultra-disturbing Finishing Touches about a plastic surgeon's descent into a world of S&M and death. Both novels are horror books for adults and better than anything you'll likely read by the "bigger" names on the horror shelves.

Then there is Secret Strangers, from 1990. I may be in small company by really liking this one. It's one of those novels that gets its painted fingernails into you and squeezes you out to the finish. There are literally pages that make you want to turn away. And it's a classic study of an idea that seems good at the outset yet ends up spinning wildly out of control and spilling havoc on its participants.

Heidi Luckner is a 17 year old high school student, living in an upper class community named Clearville, a town of ten thousand people outside of New York City. Heidi's life is in upheaval after her father, John Luckner, goes missing. Her father's disappearance is the first of many cracks that inexorably crumbles her world. Still, she's got her job at an upscale deli, her best friend Bella who's always there for her, and her boyfriend Gary who drives a black Camaro IROC, But without her father's income and support, her mom will have no alternative but to sell their home and move from Clearville. Something Heidi will not accept.

One night, Heidi is babysitting for her neighbors, Jane and Richard Seaton. The Seatons are those yuppie types who seemingly have it all, a beautiful home, exciting careers, beauty, health and vitality. After putting their young daughter Carrie to bed, Heidi does what probably most teenage girls might do if given the opportunity and goes snooping through their home. Fueled by mix of envy and curiosity, Heidi becomes almost a voyeur into Richard and Jane's privacy, and discovers something horrible. A set of Polaroids depicting sex acts between Richard and Jane Seaton, and what looks like teenaged children. Heidi is stunned and immediately places the pictures back into their hiding place. But the images of Jane Seaton in the pictures are too deeply etched into her psyche. Days go by and Heidi smokes Lucky Strikes, hangs out with her boyfriend Gary, fights with her mother...and thinks of the Seatons and their secrets. She reaches out to Jane as though building a relationship with a confidant, an older woman who can giver her advice and friendship. She's strangely attracted to Jane's confidant facade that masks a dark perversion, And then, when asked to house-sit for the Seatons over a holiday weekend. Heidi steals the photos, and with them, papers of coded symbols.

Heidi figures she'll start small, maybe twenty five thousand dollars. After that, she'll ask for more, tightening the screws and bleeding the Seatons out of their wealth. They can afford it. The Seatons are rich. Only Heidi is going to need some help. She can't blackmail them alone. So she turns to Gary as an accomplice. At first things seem like they're going to go as planned. Heidi can get money from the Seatons, find an apartment and stay in Clearville and keep her friends. Only plans never go down as imagined over cigarettes and sex in the back of a Camaro.

This is one of those "river of blood" kind of plots, where intentions, both good and bad, result in the worst outcomes. One has gone so far into the depravity and horror that to turn back is as far a journey as it is to see it through to the end. The players behind the suburban lawns are far more dangerous and powerful than Heidi, our teenage girl "hero" could have foreseen.

It's too bad this book isn't more well-known, or easier to find. It's a terrific nasty ride into darkness that leaves scars. If you run across a copy of it, read it. I don't think you'll be disappointed.

1 comment:

  1. I love Tessier but haven't read this! Sounds like I'd dig it. Don't think there was a mass market paperback edition but I could be wrong. Adding to my to-find list!