Rules for Vanishing by Kate Alice Marshall
Once a year, the path appears in the forest and Lucy Gallows beckons. Who is brave enough to find her–and who won’t make it out of the woods?
It’s been exactly one year since Sara’s sister, Becca, disappeared, and high school life has far from settled back to normal. With her sister gone, Sara doesn’t know whether her former friends no longer like her…or are scared of her, and the days of eating alone at lunch have started to blend together. When a mysterious text message invites Sara and her estranged friends to “play the game” and find local ghost legend Lucy Gallows, Sara is sure this is the only way to find Becca–before she’s lost forever. And even though she’s hardly spoken with them for a year, Sara finds herself deep in the darkness of the forest, her friends–and their cameras–following her down the path. Together, they will have to draw on all of their strengths to survive. The road is rarely forgiving, and no one will be the same on the other side.
Everyone has stopped looking for Becca. Everyone but her sister, Sara.
It’s been one year since Becca vanished into the woods, and since then, no one has seen any sign of her. Everyone but Sara, her sister, has given up on finding her, given up on even looking for her.
On the anniversary of Becca’s disappearance, though, a strange text invites Sara’s entire high school to play “the game,” the one that nods to local legend Lucy Gallows, and her disappearing road in the woods. Before long, Sara and her estranged friends walk that road, a years’ distance between them all, and a single night’s many dangers ahead.
Their search for Becca has begun once more, but there’s no promise that everyone will live to see it through. On the road, there are dangers none of them could imagine in their wildest dreams.
But the road is waiting. Becca is waiting. And above it all hangs the specter of Lucy Gallows, who has been waiting the longest of all.
“You kill a person by stopping their heart. You kill a road by stopping its purpose.”
Rules for Vanishing is not a book I would want to read after dark. Partly because I’m a certified big chicken who wouldn’t touch this with a ten foot pole if it were a movie, and partly because it’s just that creepy. Told in the form of interview transcripts, found footage transcriptions, and written recollections, it unspools at a gradually building pace, all while stripping the reader of their defenses and creeping up behind them.
For every page of relative quiet, of uncertainty, there is another page with steadily mounting horror, and still another with the vicious, terrifying consequences of failing to follow the rules of the road. There’s never a point the characters feel truly safe, but even when they seem less vulnerable than usual, a sense of being watched, of being led along like puppets on a string, pervades the story.
And the moments of brutality that arrive? The gory details, the vicious destruction? It all comes with an air of uncertainty that almost makes you feel helpless. You do not know where these terrible things come from. You do not know if they can be stopped. All you know is that they are here and they are cruel and you are so so so small in the face of their monstrosity.
Why did I, a known weenie when it comes to horror, read a book like this? Mostly because of Kal @ Reader Voracious and her high praise, but also because it’s irresistible. You know nothing good will happen in this book, and still. You read it anyway.
Rules for Vanishing can get away with its sheer brutality because its cast is so strong.
Isn’t that what makes good horror shine? Not just an atmosphere that makes itself at home in your bones, whispering all the little things that could go wrong, but the characters who charm you, the ones you wish would survive, just this once. In this aspect, Rules for Vanishing goes above and beyond, crafting each character with a sense of rich fullness that makes every loss along the way that much more terrifying.
Every single member of the cast feels like a real teen, from the ways they miscommunicate and isolate themselves, to the ways they close ranks to protect their own against bullying. (More than once, characters bully another, and if they don’t stop, they’re not tolerated. It was incredibly refreshing to read, especially given that the group isn’t on perfect terms with one another all the time, but they still wouldn’t tolerate any true cruelty toward one another).
Of them all, Sara was naturally my favorite. She is the lead, and most of the story is told from her perspective (found footage and interview transcripts aside). However, she is a deeply unreliable narrator, a technique Kate Alice Marshall pulls off to absolutely devastating effect, and not everything she sees is in its truest form. Her struggle to do the right thing, to see her journey through to the end of the road, couples so well with her prickly exterior and her gradual efforts to mend some of the distance between herself and her friends. Her complexity is incredible, and it adds layers to the story that only accentuate the horror elements.
The rest of the cast, though, also boasts strong characterization. If they didn’t, their setbacks wouldn’t matter as much. Their sacrifices wouldn’t matter. But their relationships with one another varying in terms of warmth, of closeness, of depth, and every single character benefits from it.
While reading Rules for Vanishing, you don’t want anyone to die.
You also don’t get what you wish for.
This is a book for fans of found footage, and readers who like a little bit of the unexplained in their horror.
Rules for Vanishing won’t answer every question you have. It will tease you and tempt you, and then it will crush you without a hint of mercy. But it does so in a way that makes you want more. What mysteries reach the point of resolution tangle with matters yet unsolved, and it certainly left me on the edge of my seat. I even forgot my laundry, and had little interest in eating dinner until I’d reached the last page. A horror book has to work hard to keep me invested without scaring me away.
But Kate Alice Marshall made it happen. Rules for Vanishing is a siren song of horror books, crafted like a dream.
Just remember: once you’re on the road, there’s no turning back.
CW: loss of a loved one, suicide, self-harm, underage drinking, gore, child abuse, body horror, violence, ableism