The Skull Ring
Do you remember the Satanist scare of the 1980s? I was just a little kid then, but I remember the vague rumors of eeeeeevil doings in remote fields. By the time these tales filtered down to elementary school playgrounds, they had grown into frightening gory epics indeed. When I saw that The Skull Ring seemed somewhat of a throwback to those days, I couldn’t resist picking it up. Bad idea.
Julia Stone has led a horrific life in many ways. When she was very small, her father disappeared on a terrible night that she cannot fully remember. After the family that raised her died, she found herself haunted by terrible nightmares. She visits a therapist, but even he cannot help. As the story opens, she’s moved from Memphis to rural North Carolina, found a new therapist, and hopes to make a new start.
This optimism doesn’t last long. Someone has been going into Julia’s home, and things are happening that make her wonder if she’s being stalked. The creepy happenings are subtle at first, but definitely caught my attention – like a clock being set at the same time, even when it should have been turned off, or toy blocks being placed a certain way. These are all little details that might make one wonder whether Julia is crazy or whether she really is in trouble. Indeed, beween the creepy goings-on and the unsettling ideas Julia is getting with her new therapist, everything in her world feels distinctly off-kilter.
Julia is not totally alone in her dilemma. Walter, the handyman who has worked on her home, seems concerned about her and helps her out. As the story develops, one can tell that he is very taken with Julia and cares quite a bit about her. However, Julia has a fiance back home who is waiting for her to set a wedding date and who keeps applying pressure. Julia wants to get her psychological issues in order before marriage and, therefore, keeps putting him off. The fiance is not exactly a prince of a guy, readers learn early on that Julia isn’t exactly head over heels about him, and Julia herself is very obviously a mess, so I cannot help wondering why this relationship ever came to exist.
And I just kept wondering. Some of the romantic history comes out in bits throughout the story, but it all fails to make a certain sort of internal sense. Actually, lots of things in this book fail to make sense. If we believe the story world, people and animals have been disappearing and getting carved up by “Satanists” for years, both around Memphis and now in North Carolina. However, no one really seems too concerned about the investigation into these supposed cult activities. In the real world where I live, anything with a hint of the Satanic cult about it receives tons of media coverage and police attention so I found it hard to believe that folks just accepted this as a fact of life in the world of this story.
Julia is quite the fragile heroine and the author does a good job of bringing that out and capturing the absolute terror she lives with daily, but he really needed to use a more subtle hand with the rest of his characterizations. Part of the problem is that aside from Julia, everyone is in the story is either all good or too terrible to contemplate. It’s heavyhanded, and more importantly, it makes the plot feel illogicial. After all, if someone pretty much radiates evil, Julia’s inability to spot it starts to look a little ridiculous.
On top of all that, the narrative style just feels unpolished. The author goes overboard describing people and items more than they really needed to be, and conversations don’t flow in a natural pattern. In addition, one will find references dropped into the text that are never picked up again. For example, in describing Julia’s fiance, we are told, “He was a Leo, through and through, his lion a voracious predator to her moody Gemini.” Okaaay. So, is Julia into astrology? Not that I can tell. Is anyone’s sign important to the story? No. And there are many more where this one came from. The basic idea hiding in this story really could be a good one and Julia was an interesting heroine. However, the backstory needed some more development and the narrative crys out for an editor to help polish things up a bit. In its current condition, though, it is too close to unreadable for me to recommend.