There’s no question that in the pantheon of COVID heroes, parents deserve a seat at the top. All of those moms and dads who once relied on eight-hour-a-day schools or eight-hour-a-day camps to take their darlings away, even briefly. To be forced into the present day proximity and relentless home schooling could cause even the most patient and loving parent to fray at the edges.
But let’s look at the bright side. Truly. Your offspring do not stand vacant-eyed in the hallway, hand in hand, staring at you like the twins in The Shining. They may disobey, like Alice did, but they will not wind up down the Wonderland rabbit hole. They probably don’t see dead people, like the kid in The Sixth Sense, and certainly they are not dancing naked around the campfire, a la Lord of the Flies.
If they have always lived in the castle, that’s a problem, sure. If they’re banished to the attic, as in Flowers in the Attic, well, sorry about that. But altercations over screen time and whether vegetables must be eaten and the sorrow over demise of summer softball and fireworks still pale in comparison to having your child be possessed by the devil, as in Damien, or whatever her name was in The Exorcist.
And we don’t even have to talk about Kevin.
In my upcoming thriller, The First to Lie (Forge Books), one of the main characters was so gravely betrayed as a young teenager that she spends her life planning revenge against her family (This is not a spoiler). “I was only trying to help,” or “it’s for your own good” are thin and indefensible rationalizations when they tear the heart out of a fragile teen. But what it she’s not so fragile?
The idea of child versus parent is so chilling, and so unnatural, that it can make for riveting fiction.
So if you’re on your last nerve about your otherwise adorable and precocious kiddos, pause a moment and be grateful that you are not living between the covers of these books.
Anyfamily in Anysuburbia — cool lawyer dad, smart professional mom, killer son. Maybe. What happens when your fifteen year old is accused of stabbing a classmate to death? You’d defend him with every shred of your being, of course. But what if you think he might be guilty? Are you a bad parent, or simply facing reality? Bill Landay’s dark journey to justice is a must-read.
So yeah, nature or nurture. Seven-year old Rhoda Penmark — what a great name — is, as one critic said, half Cindy Brady and half Norman Bates. In William March’s 1954 classic, another terrified mom realizes her child might be a psychopath. And at the core of it — whose fault is that? It’s the parent’s nightmare come to life: that they have given birth to a monster.
Yikes. Talk about a child you’re glad belongs to someone else. The insanely creepy Hanna, at age 7, is already a talented gaslighter. She’s decided to pit one parent against the other, with the goal of getting rid of the one she’s annoyed with. Zoje Stage (a perfectly lovely person), has created an already-iconic terror of a young girl who, with her super-weird doll, will have you hugging your own reasonably normal kids with non-stop relief.
Chilling in 2003, just as chilling now. Written from the viewpoint of a teenaged killer’s mother, Lionel Shriver’s groundbreaking psychological thriller — did we call them that back then? — traces the sinister advance of a boy’s twisted and violent behavior, as well as the remorse and self-analysis his mother undergoes as she wonders whether Kevin’s proclivities — and his victims — are her fault. Disturbing and controversial — and, sadly, timeless.
Two sisters have finally achieved their childhood dream of living next door to each other. But the day after Hannah and her 13-year-old son move in, the little girl across the street goes missing. So, hello. Welcome to the neighborhood. But Kelly Simmons presents a fascinating question: how strong are the bonds of sisterhood? And which is more important: your sister, your husband, or your child? Yeesh. Not out until January 2021, so you have a bit of time to answer that question.
Nature or nurture — or a completely wacked-out mom? Proms are always the perfect stage for the performance of a psychopath, and in Stephen King’s debut, he gives us a telekinetic young woman whose nasty high school classmates definitely had it coming. (Does Carrie fit into this terrible-kid category? If only someone had made her happy. But then, she would not be so legendary.)
Innocent games have dangerous consequences — when one of the players has rules of her own. The brilliant Heather Gudenkauf channels small town Shirley Jackson in this insightful thriller starring three young girls and an urban legend. When one of the three is harmed — are the others responsible? Peer pressure and the weight of family history are dangerous weapons.
What you do as a kid will haunt you as a grown up. And beware and be wary if what you did was in the company of other kids who are just like you. With “just like you” meaning callous, immoral, and self-centered. How do these college students calculate the value of a life? Or two? Peer pressure at its worst in Donna Tartt’s 1992 literary treasure. It’s evocative and chilling even all these years later.
Every dormitory game has rules — but what happens if one classmate decides to break them? Ruth Ware transports us to a gothic and atmospheric prep school, where cliquish and entitled young women make a pact. That is never a good sigh. As in J.T. Ellison’s Good Girls Lie, you’ll be happy these students aren’t at home with you during COVID summer.
So count your blessings, COVID parents. Give your child a little extra screen time, or quality time, or another chocolate chip cookie. Your own little Kevins and Hannas aren’t nearly as difficult as the fictional ones.
HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN is a USA Today bestselling author of 12 thrillers and winner of the most prestigious awards in the genre including five Agathas, three Anthonys, the Daphne, and the coveted Mary Higgins Clark Award. She is also the on-air investigative reporter for Boston's WHDH-TV, with 37 EMMYs and dozens more journalism honors. Book critics call her “a master of suspense.” Her previous novel, The Murder List, is an Agatha, Anthony, Macavity and Mary Higgins Clark Award nominee. Hank's newest novel is the standalone psychological thriller The First to Lie. Its Publisher's Weeklystarred review says, "stellar ... Ryan could win a sixth Agatha with this one."