Ill Will by Dan Chaon: Don’t Trust Your Memories

Full disclosure: I received a free digital copy of this book from NetGalley.

My first exposure to Dan Chaon was through a disturbing short story called The Bees, and it freaked me out so much that I was very excited to find out that I’d been approved for an advance copy of his latest novel.

Dustin is a psychologist whose past creeps up on him at the worst possible moment: concurrent with the death of his wife from cancer and the coming of age of his two sons. His adopted brother Rusty, who Dustin testified against as a 13 year old, is exonerated for the murder of their parents and released from prison. At the same time, Dustin is pulled into a mystery by one of his patients, and former police officer, Aqil.

Young men have been mysteriously disappearing only to have their bodies found days or weeks later washed up on the shores of rivers. Police say they are drunken accidents. Aqil is convinced the ill fated young men are victims of a serial killer. Dustin, as he follows the clues Aqil presents to him, hardly knows what to think, but he can’t stop his plunge into the conspiracy.

This is a story for someone who likes both true crime stories as well as psychological horror. Some people like to use “thriller” as a euphemism for literary books with horror elements, but I don’t want to do that. Horror shouldn’t be a bad word. Ill Will incorporates depictions of the Satanic Panic of the 80s both during the time that it was happening and during the fall-out. Dreamlike sequences unfold in three places at once, realistic and non-sensationalized depictions of heroin use and physical injury are at once tasteful and cringe-inducing, alternate realities converge to throw the reader off the scent of what might or might not have happened.

Chaon hammers hard on the theme of unreliable memory. “This was the thesis of my dissertation, in some ways,” Dustin narrates, “that experience is so subjective that multiple things actually do happen. That we can’t experience objective reality.”

Outwardly, Dustin’s career is damaged by his participation in repressed-memory-retrieval and a resulting lawsuit. Inwardly, Rusty’s release from prison causes him to question everything that he remembers about the night his parents were murdered. Did he even see Rusty there that night? And if Rusty is not the killer, who is?

What might on the surface seem like a typical whodunnit turns into an eerie, non-linear nightmare. There were entire chapters where I couldn’t be sure whether a particular character actually existed or not. There are large missing pieces that are presented just completely and incompletely enough that the imagination rushes in to fill the vacuum. Like any good scary piece of fiction, this lingers.

My only complaint is technical: sometimes the format of the book changed into something slightly avant-garde that included two to three columns of separate stories all running at once. The content itself was excellent and the format was in keeping with what I perceived to be the book’s intended effect, but unfortunately due to it’s being turned into an image for the ebook format, I had trouble seeing the very small type.

Other than that, I can strongly recommend Ill Will, especially to fans of psychological indie horror films like The Pact and Resolution. For avid readers, if you liked Dark Places by Gillian Flynn, but want more chills and a less neatly tied-up plot line, you’ll really like this.