I was fascinated and blown away by this sixth novel in the author’s Six Stories series. As always the novel’s structure is based on a podcast format, where Scott King presents his investigation into a true crime case. Each podcast consists of six stories told by six people associated with the case, with additional emails, news reports and documents on the crime. This time King has chosen a highly emotive crime that reminded me of the James Bulger case. The novel takes us to the old mining village of Usslethwaite in Yorkshire, where a terrible crime was committed, one that shocked the world. In 1995 the murder of twelve year old Sidney Parsons, by two boys his own age, was front page news. The murderers were dubbed the ‘Demonic Duo’ by the press and as well as the usual speculation about both the boy’s upbringing and mental state, there was a whisper of something more sinister. The hills above Usslethwaite were reknowned as a place where witches congregated, all the way back to the 17th Century when witch-hunting was rife. Rumours of something dark and disturbing lurking in the caves near the crime scene had plagued the village for centuries, as well as more contemporary plagues of flies, animal deaths and a strange black shape seen nearby. Is there something supernatural and demonic about this crime? Or are they just hysterical excuses for a crime so savage no one can understand it? Now that the murderers have reached adulthood, they’re quite possibly rehabilitated and living somewhere in the U.K. Maybe now it’s time to hear the truth about what happened when Robbie and Danny formed a friendship and proceeded to commit this unspeakable crime.
I love the originality of this author’s work and his audacity in writing about subjects other writers might avoid. I was 20 years old when Robert Thompson and Jon Venables lured James Bulger away from his mother at a Liverpool shopping centre, then murdered him and left him on the train line in Walton. Everything I remember from that case also comes up in the course of King’s interviews about Usslethwaite. I remember being shocked by the murder, the age of Thompson and Venables, but also the savagery of the press and public towards the accused who were still children. Whilst the anger the crime aroused was understandable, I couldn’t understand grown men gathering outside a court to attack the prisoner transport. I kept wondering what their goal was. What would they do if they actually broke through to those boys? Even now, the mention of either boy, their incarceration or the new lives they now have kicks up a frenzy of controversy and rage. While Demon isn’t based on the Bulger case I did wonder if Wesolowski had it in mind, because he has managed to capture a lot of those conflicting feelings in this novel. Through his podcast guests we can look at different aspects of the Usslethwaite murder, and consider the differing perspectives on what happened. Although there is outrage that Scott King is even featuring this case, I can see that all he is trying to do is answer that universal question: Why? What drove these two boys to kill?
The psychological and paranormal aspects of the case are carefully intertwined here. Robbie is a newcomer to the village, fostered by a lovely, community minded couple who haven’t been able to have children. There is speculation on what Robbie went through before he was taken into care and whether he is the disruptive force behind the crime, with Danny simply taken along for the ride. However, Danny is quite a sad, lonely and disturbed little boy even before Robbie comes along. He found his mother when she had hung herself from the rafters of the barn. Rumours abound about his mother who was a herbalist and reiki healer – something rather frowned upon and misunderstood by some members of the village. In fact she was well regarded by her patients and it could be said that the suspicion was raised due to her occupation and how lucrative it seemed to be, more than anything she did. There were reports of her coming down from the caves with another person, scandalously naked. She was also thought to set fires and dance around them. However, to Danny she was the parent who brought warmth, love and softness to his life. Without her, he is left in the care of his father who is not a bad man, but is absorbed by work and struggles to show affection. Danny visits the caves to speak to his Mum, and thinks he might hear her, but in this dark place it’s hard to know who or what might reply.
The author is incredibly skilled at ratcheting up the tension, whether with more detail of the case or the next eerie happening. I often found myself reading yet another chapter so I could find out what was next. I found the paranormal elements clever, I wasn’t scared at first, but after a while the atmosphere built and I found myself uneasy. One night, my other half asked me to turn the bedside light off since it was late and I found myself unsure whether I wanted to carry on reading in the dark. The strange happenings in Robbie’s room at his foster home were very unsettling, from phantom footsteps to flies and a horrible smell that seems to permeate everything. There’s so much in this village that can’t be explained and is witnessed by lots of different people. Were these boys influenced by demons or was this a case of two very mixed up and lost boys doing something so terrible it would destroy the village, the victim’s family, and the rest of their lives. I loved the varied perspectives, especially those unexpected ones that took our understanding to another level. While never losing sight of the victim and his family’s loss, we get to explore the ideas of rehabilitation and how a perpetrator lives with their crime, especially ones so young. Can they ever make a life for themselves and get over the guilt? Or are they forever doomed to keep moving, constantly looking over their shoulder for fear of being exposed? I was fascinated with the question of whether a demon influenced these boys or whether we could call the boys demons. They are labelled monsters, but are they? Perhaps we just label them this way, because we can’t accept one human being could do this to another, let alone a child. This is another incredible read from this inventive and original author. I devoured it so quickly that I’m buying the whole series with this month’s book budget.
Meet The Author.
Matt Wesolowski is an author from Newcastle-Upon-Tyne in the UK. He is an English tutor for young people in care.
‘Six Stories’ was published by Orenda Books in the spring of 2016 with follow-up ‘Hydra’ published in the winter of 2017, ‘Changeling’ in 2018, ‘Beast’ in 2019 and ‘Deity’ in 2020.
‘Six Stories’ has been optioned by a major Hollywood studio and the third book in the series, ‘Changeling’ was longlisted for the Theakston Old Peculier Crime Novel of the Year, 2019 Amazon Publishing Readers’ Award for Best Thriller and Best Independent Voice.
‘Beast’ won the Amazon publishing award for Best Independent voice in 2020.