This intriguing mystery/thriller is built around the idea of the near-death experience suffered by teenager, Lee Hunter. Lee and his friend, Charlie Finch, want to spend the night camping out at a derelict boathouse by a river in rural Oxfordshire. But first, they have to overcome two obstacles: the river itself, and before that, convincing their parents that they are sleeping over at each other’s house.
When Charlie’s dad, Daryl Finch, questions Lee on the real reason why his son wants to stay over, Lee witnesses Finch senior’s vile character first-hand – foul-mouthed, mentally abusive towards his wife and making lewd comments about Lee’s mum, all in the space of a few breaths. In this introduction, the author sketches a quick and effective picture of the Daryl Finch, setting the tone for the rest of the book.
It doesn’t take long for Lee and Charlie to realise that spending the night in a spooky boathouse wasn’t their greatest idea. Not able to sleep because of the rain hammering on the roof and the numbing cold, the two friends occupy themselves telling each other stories. It soon becomes apparent that Lee’s brief but uncomfortable encounter with Charlie’s dad was only a small window into the mind of a thoroughly nasty man. When Charlie is through telling Lee about some of his dad’s past behaviour, Lee is under no illusions – Daryl Finch is a full-on psychopath.
It’s when the boys try to make their way home in the morning that Lee has his near-death experience. He gets into difficulty and nearly drowns in the muddy waters. To say too much more about the plot would spoil the story for readers, but what follows is a harrowing tale with plenty of blood, guts and horror. Horror of both the physical and mental kind and some scenes almost made me want to look away from the page. But if some of the casual violence is not to everybody’s taste, there is a lot to admire in Mark Tilbury’s writing. At one point, Charlie spends a few nights at a hut on an abandoned railway line. Later, the two friends make their way through the backwoods to visit an abandoned farm – a site that has significance to the plot. The author does a great job of describing these haunting locations whilst building the relationship between the two central characters as the plot moves through the gears. When things go from bad to worse, the author makes us feel Lee’s torment in a number of ways – “the mind has an uncanny knack of making up what it doesn’t know and treating you to private movies” Lee comments at one stage.
Lee and Charlie make for a couple of well fleshed-out protagonists. The experiences that they suffer help them form an even tighter bond, and by the end of the story, it’s hard not to imagine most readers rooting for them. Throw in a villain who is as convincing as he is frightening, and some lean but descriptive prose, then what you have is a very readable and effective thriller.