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"We got her," she yelled. Jumping down from the bed, she did a round circle dance with her brother. 

"We got her, we got her...we GOT the babysitter!" She and Bobby hugged each other in rare, delirious agreement. "And they won't be back for a WEEK."

The girl tied up on the bed was not stupid: the visible and physical fact was fact. In some way, for some reason, she was the prisoner of children.

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The job was simple enough: when Dr. Adams and his wife go on holiday in Europe for a week, Barbara -- a 20 year old college student, was hired to come and stay at their house along the bay and look after their two children, Bobby (age 12) and Cindy (age 10), while they're gone.

But how could Barbara have known that Bobby and Cindy were conspiring against her with the neighbor's kids, the McVeighs -- Diane (age 17), John (age 16) and Paul (age 13). Or how this self-proclaimed "Freedom Five" were about to take their imaginary, but very rough games they played in the neighboring fields and abandoned buildings to the next level -- a very dangerous level, as the Freedom Five's next "diversion" is to capture Barbara and liberate themselves from any adult supervision until the Adams ' return, a full week away.

It begins on Sunday after Barbara goes to sleep, has a strange dream, and then awakens to a nightmare. Chloroformed, secured to her bed with ropes and effectively gagged with adhesive tape (-- basically irrelevant since the house is remote by over a mile), Barbara is rendered helpless on page seven and will remain that way until the end of the book.

But the excitement of their newfound freedom quickly wears off as the group has to keep up the appearance that everything is normal, and, of course, tend to their prisoner 24/7. Every move they make is decided by council and vote but any dissension in the ranks is met and quickly quashed with the threat of the same treatment currently being dished out to Barbara. It all seems innocent enough; a childish prank that's probably gone a little too far, but something far more ominous permeates the air.

From the beginning the children skirt around a very dark precipice, and things quickly degenerate from there. And they continue to push past that imaginary boundary with some very sinister, disturbing, and devastating results. They've gone too far already, but the treatment of Barbara takes even more shocking twists and turns. And as the days pass and the Adams' return looms nearer, the reader realizes there is no way the kids can just let her go after what they've done. Especially after what John does to their helpless prisoner...

Their game is a game no longer.

This is a bad one, kids. Seriously. It's gut-check time.

And I don't mean bad as in awful. I mean bad as in this book just builds with an icy uneasiness and mounting terror -- buoyed by sympathy for the helpless Barbara, and a brewing anger at the maddening ciphers of the Freedom Five -- that when the book reaches the startling climax...

Okay, let me back up for a second. 

First off, I want to warn everyone that there are going to be some major spoilers ahead. If the novel has piqued your interest at all, stop reading right now. I don't wanna spoil the novel for anyone, but this freakin' book shook me so damn bad I've just got to talk about it with somebody. So you can skip the rest of the review and avoid the spoilers -- or pull up a chair and be my therapist for awhile. Ready? 

There I was, Doc, happy as a pig in poop, rummaging around The Tattered Book, looking for some old Van Vogt paperbacks -- specifically The Voyage of the Space Beagle, when the big white spine of this hardback caught my eye: Let's Go Play at the Adams ', Taking a look, the cover bragged that it was more terrifying than The Lord of the Flies and The Exorcist -- combined! Okay, sure, I said skeptically as I flipped it open and read the dust jacket: something about a babysitter being taken prisoner by her charges while their parents were away promised "A terrifying horror story of children testing the limits of their freedom to reveal the vicious and sadistic tendencies inherent in civilized man." 

So we've got The Adventures in Babysitting meets The Lord of the Flies? Sounded like great exploitative gold to me, it was cheap, What the hell.

Now I've been on this Earth for 34 years now and I've never -- ever, read a book from cover to cover in one sitting. I have now. I couldn't put this damn thing down as Barbara's dehumanizing plight and the ongoing psychology of the Freedom Five dug their hooks in me and wouldn't let go.

This was author Mendal Johnson's only published work (-- he died shortly thereafter of cirrhosis of the liver). But his lone novel is frank, brutal and straightforward, and the matter-of-factness of the author doesn't allow this story to implode into melodrama or wallow in the sadistic porn elements of the story. The book could have easily fallen into either abyss but it achieves to something far greater: the scariest, bleakest and most disturbing thing I've read.

What Johnson does is put you in the head of a different character to progress the story. That way we see this unfolding disaster from many vantage points. We do spend the majority of the time with Barbara as she slowly breaks down in her isolation. Piece by piece she's whittled away; each attempted plea for release is met with the same maddening answer -- "It's only a game."

As for her tormentors, Diane is a manipulative schemer and the obvious leader of the group. When things start degenerating, the others look to her and she's always up to the task to keep things under control. To her it is a game -- and all games must have a clear-cut winner and a definitive loser. And this kind of thing happens all the time -- or so she's read. (And there's also her underlying hatred of Barbara who is everything Diane isn't: pretty, athletic and desirable.) John is the team's muscle, but Barbara's helplessness arouses something inside of him. And it isn't pity. Paul, meanwhile, is a mangy little misanthrope who's not right in the head. Prone to spastic fits that only Dianne can control -- via stolen valium from their mother, she comforts the little spazoid with horrid tales of torture and human suffering that she gleefully tells -- and Barbara is now Paul's personal experiment in terror. Bobby is the technician. He's also the most reluctant of the bunch and the group's conscience, but that doesn't stop him from participating. To him it's like a grand science experiment that he must see to the conclusion. Cindy is as Cindy does. To her it is a great game (but she doesn't quite grasp the magnitude of the stakes). Boring one minute, exciting the next, whatever the herd is doing to Barbara, Cindy does, too.

Alone, these five don't pose much of a threat. Together, though, they're a well-oiled machine. And just like Smith and Hickock in In Cold Blood, they are capable of anything -- including murder.

As the days go by, Barbara is stripped naked and tortured further by her captors. Each guard shift brings new horrors: Paul blindfolds her and probes with a pocketknife, but that is just a prelude to the disheartening scene where John rapes her. What makes this doubly worse is the revelation that John has stolen Barbara's virginity. And when Dianne catches him in the act, the reader's heart sinks even lower as the reality of the situation sinks in: unless she is somehow rescued, they can't -- and won't let Barbara go, now.

And so it goes. After one last desperate attempt to escape where Dianne is hurt in the violent struggle, the council decides that they should just kill Barbara and frame a migrant worker whose been lurking around. The spiteful Dianne has it all planned out, the vote is four to one (-- Bobby the lone dissenter), and Barbara's fate is sealed. Barbara realizes this, too, and as the others make preparations, she musters what dignity and humanity she has left and pleads her case for life one more time with each child. She almost gets through to Bobby. He's sorry and sympathetic, but it's too late. The game has "to end."

And as we approach the final, fateful chapter, and Diane's plan -- despite Barbara's best efforts, commences without a hitch, we, as a reader, just want somebody to stop this. Someone, anyone, to catch these little heartless bastards and stop them. Shake them. Slap them. Kick them in the ass. Make them see what they're doing is wrong and save Barbara.

But somehow ... You just know ... That's not going to happen. 

With each missed opportunity, with each brief glimmer of hope for Barbara that is quickly snuffed out. Maybe if she had struggled more here, or had struggled less there. And how you realize if she had only tried a certain failed tactic or trick on a different child that it might have had a different result -- and it very well could have set her free.

But that wasn't meant to be.

It's truly maddening.

And so it comes to the brutal climax. After Barbara is raped again by John, and it is much worse this time but I don't have the heart to tell you why, each child takes a turn at her with a red-hot poker until she goes into shock and stops reacting to the inflicted pain. With no more fun to be had, John strangles what little life is left out of her. All according to plan:

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"At the end, at the very end, when it would least have been expected, Barbara surprised them one more time. Her long-closed eyes popped open, wide and staring but suddenly extremely intelligent and clear, and she stared at them. She didn't stare at any one of them in particular -- her eyes seemed to include them all without moving -- but she stared at them as a human to humans, and her eyes formed the shape of the letter O. And their mouths and eyes opened in silent answer and formed the same, a silent letter O.

"Then that part of it was complete."

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After that culminating paragraph, the book lowered into my lap. All I could hear was the emptiness of my own ears and the tears that had been welling in my eyes suddenly streaked down my face. I don't know if Barbara connected to those kids, but she sure as hell connected to me. "Holy, Jesus, hell." was all I could muster. Then I sat there, stupefied and stunned. I really don't know how long it took me to take the book back up and finish it, but finish it I did.

And I should have stopped right there.

After already tearing out our hearts and guts with that climax, author Johnson then proceeds to stomp on them with the epilogue. 

They get away with it.

Diane's plan works out perfectly when they kill the migrant worker who discovered Barbara's body in the abandoned guest house -- right where they sent him. Telling the police that the migrant worker broke into the Adams ' house and did all those horrible things to Barbara, and then the McVeighs, "concerned" that Barbara, Bobby and Cindy missed church, sent their three kids to check on them. After finding Bobby and Cindy "locked in a closet," arming themselves to look around for Barbara, they "caught" the man "red-handed" and blew him in half. (They even got the man's fingerprints on the fire-poker.)

To the detectives it's an open and shut case.

God. Damn. It.

Barbara deserved better than this. If the author gets you, like he got me, you just went through everything she did -- some 280 odd pages of pure hell. Barbara's emotional trauma, psychological breakdown, and internal monologue as her time on Earth runs out is the most beautiful, brutal and honest thing I've ever experienced or endured in print or picture. The lack of justice for her at the end is appalling. But that's life, right? Diane's right? Right?! These things do happen -- and life sure as hell isn't fair. 

It may not be fair, but that sure as hell doesn't make it right.

Johnson does give some hints that everything probably won't be all roses for the future Freedom Fivers. Personally, I think Paul's days are numbered. The twitchy little creep is gonna brag. You know he will. But I'm sure Diane will take care of that, though, with an overdose of sleeping pills. But it all rings very hollow.

After finishing the epilogue, the book was flung across the room in righteous anger before I stormed off to stomp and pace around the house for awhile. It was around 4:30 in the morning (-- I'd been reading since 9:00pm ), and after I stomped and fumed, and talked myself out of a drive into the country for some primal scream therapy for almost an hour, I sat back down and stewed, the book in a heap over by the TV where it landed and where it would stay for a good long while. Realizing I only had one outlet available to properly vent, a review for the website, with that notion I was able to finally shut if off and go to bed as the sun came up.

Let's Go Play at the Adams' came out in 1974, but despite the fact of being scarier than The Lord of the Flies and The Exorcist combined (-- definitely more disturbing than those books because it's grounded more in reality with no happy ending to save the day), the novel barely made a blip on the national radar and quickly faded into obscurity. But I guess I've just joined a small cult of people who've had the same traumatic experience with the book. Today it would be picked apart and vilified for inciting this kind of behavior (which I'm told it did, fictionally, in Steve Vance's novel The Abyss and I know the novel pulled a Jedi-mind@$%* on author Jack Ketchum.) But Johnson really doesn't point fingers at the causes for the children's behavior. Instead, he subtlety presents the facts and lets the reader draw their own conclusions. A child can be cruel when picking on someone. A group of kids picking on someone can be even more barbaric. And a group of kids under these circumstances -- free of any repercussions, is an absolutely terrifying prospect. And I'm in no way saying or implying that all kids are this cruel, or evil, but under these circumstances these kids were (and those of you who don't think kids are capable of such cruelty have been away from the playgrounds for far too long.) Let's Go Play at the Adams ' follows this logic to the logical conclusion. Logically tragic.

To me there is no one thing to blame in the novel but a combination of a lot of things: indifferent parenting, references to things seen on TV or read in books, group dynamics, peer pressure, and, in some cases, just plain bad mental wiring (Paul and Diane). But these are just accelerants. No spark. No flame. No matter how much gas is thrown on it. And even if Johnson did try to lay blame, I think it would have rang just as hollow as his conclusion. There really was no cause here. I don't think the prank at the beginning was all that innocent -- especially since it was Diane's idea, but I, and I honestly believe the Freedom Five, didn't think it would go that far. Things just got out of hand. So far out of hand there was no turning back. The children as a group crossed the line. And with no repercussions and no one around to reign them in, the steps got bigger and the boundary kept extending into new and dangerous territory. And the further they went over that line, the more impossible it was to come back. Things just got out of hand. One step at a time. It's that simple and that's simply terrifying.

And I have to give begrudging credit to Johnson for not -- for the lack of a better word, wimping out in the end, no matter how much it shook and pissed me off. It wasn't the only way the story could have ended. But it was the way this particular story had to end. 

Man, this book got to me. This book got to me real bad.

Originally Posted: 12/17/04 :: Rehashed: 05/20/09

Knuckled-out by Chad Plambeck: misspeller of words, butcher of all things grammatical, and king of the run on sentence. Copy and paste at your own legal risk. Questions? Comments? Shoot us an e-mail.
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