I really tried to take this novel seriously, but the crux of the “horror” is based on the activities of four college students nine years earlier, when they abandon their Vermont college educations to wreak havoc on society, “artists” who think they know better than teachers or the world at large. (Remember “stickin’ it to the man?”) The self-described “Compassionate Dismantlers,” complete with manifesto, are a destructive band of rebels who begin terrorizing the campus with pranks that gradually become more dangerous, including the destruction of a teacher’s reputation.
At a remote cabin in the Vermont woods, they smoke dope, work on their “art” and pretend they are above the petty concerns of those who don’t appreciate their mission. The idea is to take things apart to understand them, but this arrogant bunch never bothers to put them back together again. Their putative leader is a sociopath named Suz who sports silk tunics, leotards and combat boots, her favorite name for everyone “babycakes.” Henry and Tess, a couple via Suz’s permission, plan to push their art beyond limitations - but Henry secretly loves Suz, who loves Winnie. You get the idea. The mountain idyll ends in tragedy, the Compassionate Dismantlers, well… dismantled.
Nine years later, two of the former members receive postcards in the mail with the Compassionate Dismantlers’ manifesto. Then a series of inexplicable events occur that suggest the dead may not be resting in peace. Henry and Tess are married, Tess a successful if conventional local artist, Henry assuming his father’s house-painting business. Their marriage currently on the rocks. Henry sleeps out in his studio while Tess pounds a heavy bag in the cellar, the fruit of their marriage nine-year-old Emma, who suffers from OCD and has an invisible friend named Danner.
Emma also has a real friend, Mel, who is really as strange as Emma, who tends to scare her parents when she tells secrets she couldn’t possibly know, secrets long-buried at the cabin. Much confusion ensues, fear building apace with eerie nighttime sighting of ghostly figures and Danner’s coming to life in the form of a rag doll Emma has made from scraps. Secrets hang between husband and wife as Emma withdraws into a world where a fake moose is her best friend, her OCD ever more pronounced; Winnie is back at the cabin. By the time a private detective arrives asking questions, Henry and Tess are ready to squeal. Emma spends more time with creepy Danner, and the dead have certainly returned to haunt the present.
The publisher’s reviews in the front of the book hail McMahon as the next Stephen King, but she is not. Dismantled might be perfect for a less-demanding YA audience with the right amount of fright and guilt, footsteps running through the woods, Danner’s spilling of secrets to Emma. But there are so many red herrings and misdirections in this story that while it is dangerously mischievous, evil it is not. Like the ghost stories at a slumber party that reach a fever pitch at midnight, McMahon asks too much of an adult reader. Smoke and mirrors are not enough to make me truly question the presence of the otherworldly in this tale or the darkness in a little girl’s damaged heart.