by Sarah Lotz
470 pages, Hodder and Stoughton
Review by Pat Black
Adventure reading assignment: buy this one in an airport departure lounge and read the opening chapters before you get on a plane.
Sarah Lotz’s The Three starts with four aviation disasters. Yes, on-board trolley service, I did say I wanted two G&Ts.
It is horribly plausible, particularly when it comes to examining rescue workers’ and first responders’ experiences. We go into the nuts and bolts of catastrophic events, the gory details that people have to deal with somewhere in the world every single day.
So, with your nerves nicely shredded and spring rolled as an appetiser, things move from a story about mass tragedy to full-on weirdness.
Out of the four plane crashes, only three people survive: children, all roughly the same age, around 10 or younger. The fact of their survival seems to be a miracle. Is there something supernatural about it? Every religious nutjob and conspiracy theorist on the planet seems to think so…
None of the four crashes are down to terrorism – they all seem to have plausible technical explanations, like mechanical problems, bird strike, engineering botch jobs. The jets come down in the sea off Portugal, in the Florida Everglades, in the heart of a South African township and, creepily of all, into the heart of the Aokigahara woodland at the foot of Mount Fuji in Japan – which you may have heard referred to as the “suicide forest”.
The book mostly takes the form of a fake “non-fiction” book by a journalist called Elspeth Martins, which in itself takes in first-person interviews from leading players in the drama, as well as other media such as online chat forums, transcribed radio shows and news reports. This epistolary style put me in mind of how Stephen King handled Carrie, with various sources and multiple perspectives giving the story a rich sense of texture, but on a more global scale.
We never directly interact with The Three, as the survivors of the Black Thursday disasters soon become known in the media frenzy to follow. We instead look at the principal characters who help look after them – including a New York grandmother who takes in the American child; Paul Craddock, the uncle of the British girl who survives the sea crash; and the young cousin of the Japanese boy who walks away from the Fuji disaster.
Lotz skilfully blends in a sense of location in each of the sections. The parts with Paul Craddock and the young survivor, Jess, felt authentically British, especially when it came to the behaviour of the press. The Japanese section mainly concerns the interaction between Chiyoko, the cousin of Hiro, the Japanese survivor, and a shut-in called Ryu on a message board. However, the main American part doesn’t look at Bobby Small’s family as much as it looks at Pastor Len, a bible belt loon.
Pastor Len gets excited about a message sent by one of his flock to her sister as she lies dying in the wreckage at Aokigahara. This seems to refer to the miracle boy, and appears to carry a warning about him just before she expires. Pastor Len makes a link between The Three and the Horsemen of the Apocalypse mentioned in the bible. Soon, a cult known as the “Pamelists” grows up around the supposed prophecy of the American lady who died in the forest.
A lot of the testimony about Pastor Len comes from Lolo, the sex worker he spends a lot of his spare time with. That should tell you all you need to know about Pastor Len, but he sets a dangerous example to unhinged, desperate people who look to the world of conspiracy theories and half-baked crypto-spirituality to get a sense of belief, and fulfilment.
This hysteria reaches fever pitch when Pastor Len looks at the passenger list of the South African crash – the one where there were no survivors – and picks out a young boy about the same age as The Three. This lad, Len asserts, must have survived. He is the Fourth Horseman. He must be found. Soon, Len and his backers put up a $200,000 reward for anyone who can find Kenneth, with predictably chaotic results.
Where The Three works best is when it plays with its central mystery. At certain points, you’ll be convinced that there is some sort of supernatural agency at play. At others, you’ll be swayed by the idea that it’s all a delusion – a mixture of hysteria and trauma causing people to believe that The Three are not what they appear to be.
This is most harrowing in the mental breakdown of Paul, the uncle of Jess. First of all, the notoriously sensitive and mature British press feast on Paul’s life – he is gay, and an out-of-work actor – causing him to go to ground with the little girl who was plucked from the sea. Traumatised by the disaster in his own right, Paul begins to experience strange things in the night. He believes his brother, who died in the crash, is haunting him, with a particular warning about the girl.
Paul begins to pay attention to one of the competing theories about The Three: that they have all been replaced by extraterrestrials, intent on harming the human race. He begins to drink heavily.
In America, Bobby Small’s grandfather, Reuben, seems to make a miraculous recovery from Alzheimer’s. In Japan, the boy Hiro’s guardian – another uncle – appears overly fond of a new type of android which mimics human beings to a spookily accurate degree – even down to simulated breathing. Locked away from the world, Hiro will only communicate to others through his Surrabot – an exact mechanised replica of the boy.
Lotz is adept in the art of the small twist – little bits of information which alter your perception of events, but not necessarily the course of the story at large. For a novel printed on good old paper, The Three is plugged into how the international media has changed beyond all recognition in just 15 years, and how our notions of obscure, occult things have evolved along with technology.
I once lamented how the digital revolution - particularly the popularisation of instant, pixel-perfect photography - all but killed crypto-zoology, ghost-hunting and UFO-spotting across the world. Nowadays those Loch Ness Monster/Bigfoot/Spacers shots have to be Hollywood-grade in order for us to take them in any way seriously. A few bubbles or a sparkly weather balloon in thick cloud isn’t going to cut it any more. But this hasn’t turned us into hard-bitten cynics overnight. If anything, thanks to the internet, people have become even more credulous of totally made-up stuff.
In place of the old unseen world has come a new set of quasi-beliefs – mostly regarding conspiracy theories. To delve into some of these online is to gain a brief glimpse into the inside of a maniac’s head. For a laugh, I once looked at conspiracy theories relating to the film director Stanley Kubrick. My head was soon spinning with it, and that’s just the stuff about Eyes Wide Shut.
Lotz looks at how these theories, no matter how daft or implausible, begin to affect the minds of people who are either suffering from severe mental illness or in the grip of paranoid delusions. It leaves us in no doubt that there are exploiters and exploited, but never sacrifices the central mystery - are The Three simply incredibly lucky people who survived against astronomical odds, or is there something paranormal at work?
You’ll have to read it to find out. I recommend that you do.