In 1979, a tattooed man who calls himself Mr. Wyck lures a small group of teenagers to his New York farmhouse. Over the next six months, a series of increasingly disturbing events occur. Only one of the teenagers, Alice, returns home, though she’s anything but free.
When the wider world discovers what happened in the farmhouse, Mr. Wyck earns the nickname Bogey Jack, and over the next twenty years, he becomes the stuff of urban legend. He’s the reason kids are afraid to play in the woods, and the reason their parents won’t let them. But even behind bars, he attracts new followers: a group who call themselves the Wyckians.
In 1999, Alice has a new life as a professor of folk law and hopes never to revisit her time in the house of Bogey Jack. However, work sees her settled at a college nearby the old farm house. As the twenty-year anniversary of Mr. Wyck’s arrest and his impending release draw near, Alice attracts the attention of a documentary film crew and the sinister leader of the Wyckians, and it’s not long before the secrets of the past begin to stir.
The Singing Bone is a sinister, slow-burning thriller, and a seriously impressive debut.
It’s also exactly my kind of book: cultish, claustrophobic and spooky as all get out. And the rural New York setting? BONUS! I absolutely devoured this novel.
The story shifts between 1978-9 and 1999. The reader experiences the 70s chapters mostly through Alice’s eyes while the 90s narrative is split between Alice, Hans Loomis (the documentary maker) and Stuart (the younger brother of Molly, one of the teenagers who didn’t make it out of the house). As such, the story unfolds slowly. It opens with Hans, who’s trying to decipher between truth and legend to figure out what really happened in the farmhouse. Then the reader meets two versions of Alice: the innocent seventeen-year-old and the haunted woman living under a false name. In the early stages of the story, there’s a chilling juxtaposition between the enchantment of Alice’s early days at the farmhouse and the shadow her time there ultimately casts over her life. Then we get Stuart’s perspective: what he remembers about Alice and her friends when they were young and what he observed when he sneaked into the house. The truth is constantly shifting and distorting.
The Singing Bone takes its title from a folk song/story of the same name, which Alice is researching. In the Grimm version:
A brother kills a brother so that he might marry the king’s daughter. It’s only later that the younger brother’s bones are turned into a horn that tells the story of his death, and then the murderer is stitched into a sack and thrown in the river.
However, there are many versions of the tale, all equally valid. Indeed, it’s no coincidence that Alice’s work, like the story she inhabits is:
…Rich in shifting narratives, half-truths, magical revelations. Hidden keys that open impossible worlds are not unfamiliar to her.
And here’s the thing: Alice doesn’t remember much of what happened at the farmhouse, particularly towards the end. The anniversary agitates her memory, but there are so many versions of what happened—so many ways of looking at it—she can no longer be sure what’s true. As in her work, she has to piece together all the versions to find the facts. It’s very gothic.
At the centre of all these shifting narrative fragments is the enchanter, Mr. Wyck. The reader never hears from him directly, and so he remains Other: shimmering somewhere between man and myth. There are very few physical descriptions of him in the book, and those that Hahn includes tend to focus on his tattoos—images he’s laid over his skin (yes, I’m kicking myself for not noting them down).
All this truth/illusion, shifting perspectives stuff gets me giddy. It’s totally my bag. I also loved the story’s unhurried pace. Hahn gives her reader plenty of room to get a feel for what life is like in Mr. Wyck’s house. But throughout the summer, when it’s still all free love, pot and parties, there’s an ominous sense of foreboding. Little by little, Arcadia falls apart.
So, yes, I loved this book. But there were a few points that niggled. I understood why Alice and her friends felt they couldn’t leave the house, but I didn’t really get why they went there in the first place. Ostensibly, one of Alice’s friends, Trina, is dating a friend of Mr. Wyck’s who already lives in the house. But when Trina introduces her friends to Mr. Wyck and his existing housemates, Allegra and Lee, it’s suddenly: Whelp, I guess we all live all here now.
Four teenagers move into the house: Alice, Molly, Trina and Stover. With the exception of Alice, who’s seventeen, the others are eighteen but still in high school. As you might expect, their parents aren’t well pleased when the kids skip out to go live in a hippie farmhouse owned by a guy in his thirties. They worry a lot. But their efforts to get the kids back? Kinda lacklustre.
Now, in this next bit, I’m not going to give away anything too explicit, but I am going to discuss the ending. Becuase Feelings. If you’re planning to read this one, I suggest you scroll down two paragraphs.
***HERE BE SPOILERS***
The ending was dissatisfying. I was waiting for a climax or confrontation that never materialised. With Mr. Wyck’s impending release from prison, the Wyckians returning to the house for the anniversary, their hooded leader spooking Alice, Hans gathering material for his documentary on the murders, and Stuart coming back on the scene, it felt like trouble brewing. But the tension just fizzed out.
To be fair, there is a revelation of sorts, but it’s one of those awkward twists that leaves you blinking at the page like ‘…was I not supposed to have figured that out yet?’ Maybe Hahn does want readers to join the dots, but even if that’s the case, there aren’t really any consequences that follow from the revelation. Okay, I’m headed deep into spoiler country: Scroll. Away. Now. Alice *does* get closure, but I didn’t feel she’d earned it. One of the big questions of the book is: who is responsible for the major crime? And I felt Alice should shoulder more blame than Hahn attributes her. Not all of it, or even most of it, but a share. Wyck’s agent or no, what she does is horrific, and the idea that she could ever really be free of that doesn’t ring true, especially when the other characters all pay such a high price. So while Alice finds closure, I didn’t, AND I WANT MY CATHARSIS, GODDAMMIT!!!
…Annnnnnd welcome back to the spoiler-free zone.
Those points aside, The Singing Bone was everything I wanted in a book. It’s a grim tale about the ways in which the malicious prey on the innocent, how quickly individuals submit to the will of the group and how willing people are to believe illusion over truth. It’s sinister, creepy and darkly compelling.
Thank you to Regan Arts for providing a copy of The Singing Bone in exchange for an honest review.
Thanks also to Grammarly for picking up 15 critical issues in my draft of this review. If, like me, you have trouble with typos, do give Grammarly a go!
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