Don't mess with the creepy new girl
Ryan Devlin, a predator with a past, has been forced to take a job as a handyman at an exclusive private school, Crossley College. He's losing his battle to suppress his growing fascination with a new girl who seems to have a strange effect on the children around her.
Tara Marais fills her empty days by volunteering at Crossley's library. Tara is desperate, but unable, to have a baby of her own, so she makes Reborns — eerily lifelike newborn dolls. She's delighted when she receives a commission from the mysterious Vader Batiss, but horrified when she sees the photograph of the baby she's been asked to create. Still, she agrees to Batiss's strange contract, unaware of the consequences if she fails to deliver the doll on time.
Both Tara and Ryan are being drawn into a terrifying scheme — one that will have an impact on every pupil at Crossley College...
Over the years, upside citizens have lived in blissful ignorance of the deeply weird world beneath their feet, where "good inculcation" awaits at the hitherto unheard-of Academy whilst an impossible Mall provides "a pleasureland of tastes and styles." All this, plus "solid justice, a primo bureaucracy, and excellent modification and termination at the Wards." (p.30) That's hardly the half of all that downside has to offer, either... though I dare say you and I wouldn't want anything to do with any of its trademark madness.
Inevitably, however, a few browns — that's us — have stumbled into the dark passages of this subterranean pseudo-civilisation in the process of searching for something, like Dan and Rhoda did a kid. Others, like last year's Josh and Lisa, have been drawn there, and invariably detained. But never before have downside citizens dared to come up, up and away into the light of day.
In The New Girl, the third in a loose series of insanely nightmarish horror novels by S. L. Grey — which is to say the open pseudonym shared by South African authors Sarah Lotz and Louis Greenberg — that's about to change, because the sinister community is recruiting. Among them, some have a hunger for new blood, new knowledge, primo new products to repackage and pass on to the Mall's shoppers... and where better to look than at school?
At the outset of Grey's new novel, both Tara and Ryan — two of our three perspective characters — are employed at Crossley College. As part of a concerted effort to at least appear interested in her brat of a stepson, Tara volunteers at the campus library Martin has never yet frequented. Ryan, on the other hand, is the janitor. Painfully estranged from his wife and daughter, he hopes to show them that he deserves a second chance. Thing of it is, Ryan's ex suspects him of abusing Alice; she, at least, wants nothing to do with him, no matter how long he can hold down a reasonably responsible job.
Both Ryan and Tara are soon struck by Crossley College's newest student, namely Jane:
Tara's first through is that the kid's mother should be shot — poor mite is asking to be bullied; Tara's almost certain that her hair is dyed. It's that peculiar bile shade that results when wannabe-platinum brunettes get the peroxide mix wrong. And there's something off about her school uniform, her frayed blazer is a darker shade than Crossley's regulation baby-shit colour, and her skirt is too large for her small frame; the stitching showing in the seams as if it's homemade. (p.12)
Jane's an odd-looking sort, to be sure, but her appearance isn't even the strangest thing about her. The other kids — up to and including the usual bullies — flat-out refuse to have anything to do with her, and some of the teachers seem intimidated too.
For the time being, suffice it to say that Ryan's interest in Jane is hardly healthy. As "something dark starts uncoiling inside him," (p.41) he's drawn almost inexorably towards her. Luckily, he hasn't forgotten what he's working towards... though what he'll do when he finds out that his family has all but forgotten him is anyone's guess.
Tara, meanwhile, takes pity on the poor kid, in large part because of the hellish year she's had herself:
She has to face it. If it wasn't for that ill-fated pregnancy, she wouldn't be trapped here. She'd be back in New Jersey, or possibly teaching in another state, praying that the school administrators didn't dig too deeply into her background (she is, after all, just one Google click away from being found out). Still, she can't afford regrets, and in any case there's something about this place that's got to her, squirmed its way under her skin. It's not the city itself; she's still struggling to get a handle on its aura of suppressed violence, clogged highways, paranoid security estates and sprawling townships. She's not sure what it is, suspects it's because there's so much need here. [...] Kids like Jane, for instance. Staying here helping needy kids like her, well, it would be a way of doing penance for what's gone before, wouldn't it? (p.79)
What's gone before is something we learn later, something which adds a tragic element to Tara's tale, and factors in to her oddball hobby: baking fake babies, or rather Reborn dolls. She's designed so many of these uncannily lifelike infants of late that she's had to start selling them, so when a client called Vander Batiss asks to buy a living dead doll — stitched shut at the lips and the like — Tara is taken aback, but the money's too good to turn down.
Needless to say, The New Girl is not a novel that trades in nice things. Never mind the sugar and spice, Grey's latest takes in paedophilia, brainwashing, slavery, pass-the-buck parenting and the corruption of innocent children by adults in positions of power. It's all desperately unpleasant, and for the first time since this previously scenic series started, I found myself wishing for something resembling respite.
It's not that Grey goes too far. Though The New Girl's darkness is undeniably darker, having to endlessly one-up what's come before is a difficult position horror authors all too often find themselves in; I won't hold that against this novel. A more potent problem is that the lightness that leavened these traumatic fantasies in the past is all but absent, despite The New Girl taking place in our world.
If you want to blame anyone, blame the school principles [...] willing to sell their souls and their children for some seriously good money. Or blame the teachers, blame the parents, blame society. Blame fucking capitalism; you may as well bash your head against a brick wall. (p.276)
Grey's sick sense of humour is still in there somewhere, and the satire — directed towards the education system in this instance — is characteristically sharp. But I cared not all for The New Girl's nasty characters. One of our protagonists is a child predator; surely I need say no more about him than this. The other may be more relatable, but Tara is so passive and self-pitying that I felt at best indifferent about whatever fate awaited her.
To return to my reviews of the previous books in the Downside series, "The Mall made an immediate impact, harrowing off the bat and darkly hearty thereafter. But more than a year on, what's remained with me is its cutting criticism of consumerism; its self-aware skewering of today's culture of consumption." The Ward, in turn, "embiggened this nightmarish scenario brilliantly, introducing downside more quickly than before and giving readers a longer look at its larger infrastructure," specifically that of the healthcare industry.
It's great that Grey refuses to simply repeat the aforementioned formula ad nauseum — the decision to delay and delay our return downside is I wise one, I think — unfortunately what's upside is even less alluring than the malignant modification wards and subversive superstores readers of this series have explored before, and nowhere near as novel. There remain reasons to recommend The New Girl — it's well paced, brutally barbed and surprisingly satisfying at the absolute last — but it is, I fear, the least in the Downside series so far.