REVIEW: Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall

Here is a prediction: The cracks are starting to form, the mood is starting to change, and the discourse is starting to shift. Give it a year or two and horror novels will be as visible as they were back in the 1980s. Horror will be back again… but we aren’t quite there yet.

Genre publishing moves incredibly slowly and always insists upon chasing yesterday’s trends beyond the point where they cease to be profitable.

The last set of trends to sweep through genre publishing involved pivoting towards young adult fiction and rationalising the consumer base by leaning hard into the tastes of younger audiences and the aesthetics of fan-fiction. Unfortunately for genre publishing, the market fell out of YA around the same time that Hollywood realised that the mass appeal of young adult fiction didn’t really extend much beyond Potter, Hunger Games, and the odd John Green novel.

Since then there has been a rather graceless scramble away from YA and back towards the adult genres. But YA imprints are still a thing and YA imprints are trying to pivot too.

Rules for Vanishing is Kate Alice Marshall’s second novel. At the time of its release in early 2020, it was incredibly well received and popped up on a number of different recommendation lists, which is probably how I came to buy this somewhat disappointing work of Young Adult Horror fiction.

The story starts out rooted in trauma and local folklore. Sara is a teenaged girl who was at the centre of a large group of friends until her sister disappeared and the grieving process pushed her to the margins of the group. The Sara we encounter at the start of the novel is scarred and isolated but remains on pretty good terms with the friends she used to have. She is also convinced that her sister Becca’s disappearance was supernatural in origin.

The supernatural McGuffin in question is a local legend about a haunted road that appears and disappears in quite a mysterious fashion. Becca, it turns out, was fascinated by the legend and Sara is convinced that Becca disappeared because she found a way to walk the road.

The road is an excellent idea in and of itself. Move outside the cities and America is surprisingly under-populated compared to Europe and it’s quite easy to imagine a road that just appears and disappears. Maybe you’re driving your car into town to do some shopping and you suddenly notice a turning into the woods that you hadn’t seen before. Maybe you’re going for a walk in the woods and you catch a glimpse of a paved road snaking through the trees. Next time you pass by, the road is gone. Given the way that weather can change the landscape, I find this idea as plausible as it is evocative. It’s certainly more interesting than rumours of a monster or haunted house.

Sara’s status as someone who has drifted away from a large group of friends feels more convenient than convincing as, beyond her obsession with her sister, Sara seems to be in pretty good psychological health and on very good terms with her former circle of friends. It’s become quite trendy for genre novels to claim that they are about trauma but most novels stop at the water’s edge and effectively use ‘trauma’ as shorthand for having a protagonist who happens to be a bit sad. Despite suggestions that she might be traumatised, Sara is far more together than I ever was as a teenager: She’s in constant contact with a large group of friends, she has a couple of potential love-interests and when things go weird she has a group of people who are willing to risk their lives for her. When I say that Sara’s status as an outsider is convenient I mean that the character is just entangled enough to have meaningful relationships but distant enough to have her own agenda. This feels somewhat forced even though some of the relationships work quite nicely.

In fact, Sara is so popular that her popularity turns out to be one of the novel’s on-going problems. Indeed, when Sara does eventually decide to follow the road into the woods, she shows up with what feels like about a dozen people including her gay best friend, her crush, and a load of randos who just happen to turn up because they’re friends-of-friends and who doesn’t turn up in the woods in the middle of the night on the say so of someone who is supposedly a bit of a social outsider? Some of these relationships feel substantial but a lot of them feel under-developed to the point where I kept on having to remind myself of which name went with which character. I can understand having some cannon fodder for a book in which terrible things happen but the relationships between the characters really did not work for me at all.

The structure of the book is reminiscent of Tarkovsky’s Stalker and Aldris Budrys’ Rogue Moon in so far as the road turns out to be a path through a series of fantastical puzzle tableaux that need to be solved before the group can progress.  Needless to say, the rules that govern the road are not the rules that govern the real world and so Sara has to use Becca’s journal and clues left by NPCs to decipher each challenge.

I use the term NPC advisedly as these tableaux feel a lot like the Fade sections from the Dragon Age games. Namely, they are magical dream-worlds that operate according to laws rooted in story and symbol and so require an element of story-foo in order to pass through them safely. I must admit that I find this particular trope quite tedious: In games I find it annoying, in books I find it stupid as every single thing inserted into a novel is inserted according to a set of rules determined by the author. Having characters then ‘work out’ the story logic of the author’s own narrative feels self-regarding and serves only to drag the narrative away from the real world. Indeed, if the world functions according to laws known only to the author, why not the characters too? And if neither the world nor the characters are rooted in reality then why should I give a shit about anything that happens to them? You might as well be watching a cartoon.

These types of stories generally rely upon the strength of the characters and relationships going into them. The important thing isn’t so much the contents of the dream-worlds, as what those dream-worlds reveal about the characters. This is where the novel really falls apart as Marshall chooses to ignore most of the narrative ground-work laid in the opening section: For example, the whole purpose of the expedition along the road was to find Becca but when Becca turns up it’s nothing short of thunderously underwhelming. There’s also a weird moment when, rather than having Sara get off with the boy trailed as the love interest, Marshall has her go completely off reservation and hook up with a completely different person with whom there is precisely zero tension.

The bulk of the story, it turns out, is told as a flashback as the narrative cuts back and forth between the kids on the road and Sara being interviewed by an official investigator. These sections are quite well realised as initially it seems like Sara is feeding the investigators a line to protect herself but it soon becomes clear that she’s lying about a lot more than one might expect.

From a gaming perspective, I really like not only the structure of the novel but also the Amblin/Stranger Things vibe of kids stumbling upon something weird and trying to investigate it behind their parents’ backs. I understand that this is a YA novel and that Marshall didn’t really want to get bogged down in the emotional dynamics of Sara’s family but I really liked the idea of kids engaging with the supernatural in an attempt to resolve their real life problems.  I must admit that I didn’t find the set pieces all that spooky as they reminded me too much of a series of RPG puzzles but I can imagine someone taking that structure and doing something more interesting with it.

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