(This was one of the first horror books I reviewed on the site. After reading more of the genre, my opinions have improved on this one. It was unique, and I still remember a lot of its plot even nearly a year later. – Brandon Scott)
Originally Published: August 25th, 2021
Rules for Vanishing Is Not The Book You Think It Is
Rules for Vanishing is such a different book from anything we’ve reviewed on the site in a long time. It’s a dark medley of The Wizard of Oz, Lovecraftian Horror, and The Blair Witch Project. And, though I ultimately enjoyed reading this book—if for that originality—a few things give me pause. I can’t decide if they’re bad aspects of the book, just things that stuck with me.
The first is simply that the book is not what it seems. The marketing and the cover put someone in mind of a ghost story—and technically it is that—but it’s not like any ghost story I’ve seen. Yes, the dead souls of humans come into the story occasionally, but most of the “ghosts” are demons and monsters. The “afterlife” or unfinished business barely plays into things.
This is where The Wizard of Oz comparison fits. Rules for Vanishing functions and has the progression of a dark fantasy twist on that classic story. Almost the entire book takes place on a path—which must never be strayed from—and introduces new problems and characters at set fixtures. It’s Portal Fantasy, but people die all the time.
And with that body count comes the most amateurish aspect. Now, don’t misunderstand me: this book has solid writing. The descriptions—especially of the darker happenings—are solid on a technical level, and the late-game dialog is the best part of the book. But Rules for Vanishing has an overload of characters in too short of pages. It becomes nearly impossible to track who’s who in a group discussion. This does serve a purpose, but the book becomes much easier to read the more characters die. Once some have room to breathe with their page attribution, they become understandable players in this game.
Rules for Vanishing Improves As The Cast Slowly Lessens Itself
And it’s here we can finally get into some of the blanket positives. The budding/reclaimed romances, the rekindled friendships, and the occasional sinister villain moments are all fleshed out and fun. Perhaps the cast shouldn’t have been calm enough with all the death to have emotional moments besides despair and panic—but they were breezy and yet poignant breaks in a bleak narrative. I liked the surviving characters enough to want to see their lives afterward.
The other solid aspect of this book is the twisty nature of the narrative and how its gimmick of “found footage” contributes. Rules for Vanishing is often in a first-person account standardly written, but it cuts between texts, social media, video recordings, and other ephemera to give you an objective look at what even happened. And this becomes increasingly necessary as the book reveals how the dark magic at its narrative core can affect perceptions.
For some, though, this may become confusing and distracting. The book lies to readers multiple times—and doesn’t reveal much of the truth for long stretches, and sometimes never fully does. But this lends to the Lovecraftian aspect I mentioned. Human memory gets altered and unraveled. Things so old and formless and alien come into the plot and behave inscrutably. The book wants you confused and curious.
The Polarizing Format Does Have A Purpose
And while I personally like how that aspect was handled, I would’ve preferred if this book had simply picked a lane. A deeper focus on the ever-changing road, or a more standard haunting story, or even just an exploration of these characters and their traumas all could have been solid. The writer was good enough at each that they could have carried a slightly smaller novel on one idea’s back.
Instead, we got Rules for Vanishing. A book refreshing in its chaos, interesting in its pivots, but has diluted its horror and punch for the sake of such attributes. If you want novelty with your horror, this book may suit you. If you wanted ghosts and the associated tropes, then look elsewhere. And, if you’ve read this far, I’m sure you already know where you stand on the decision.
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