By Patrick Redmond
Hyperion. 343 pp. $23.95
The jacket copy might lead one to think this book is some sort of blood-soaked horror novel--Stephen King with a British accent. But while the bodies certainly do pile up by the end of "Something Dangerous," the lure along the way is not in waiting to find out who gets it next and in what manner but in piercing deeper into the twisted minds of Patrick Redmond's characters and the bizarre social landscape they inhabit.
That locale is Kirkston Abbey, a boys' boarding school in Norfolk, England. The real villain in this story is not any one character but the boarding school system itself. Redmond relentlessly portrays it as a cruel mutation of childhood: Where boys should be able to make new friends and meet different people, they are confined inside a contrived, almost prisonlike society full of arbitrary class distinctions and crude hazing that borders on low-level terrorism.
As the wife of the school's headmaster (she is one of the minority of sympathetic characters) observes: "The younger boys were still children for all their attempts to act otherwise. Why force them to act like men? They would have the whole of their adult lives to do that."
In this hostile environment, friendship is a zero-sum game, the weak can expect to be bullied and beaten by the strong, and the worst possible offense is telling the authorities about anything that's done to you. Here we are introduced to 14-year-old Jonathan Palmer and his classmate Richard Rokeby. Palmer's qualities make him a perfect target for the bullies and the teachers, who are sometimes the same: He comes from a less well-off family and speaks with a rough, working-class accent that shouts his origins to everyone he meets.
Rokeby, by contrast, is self-sufficient, defiant of his teachers and aloof from his fellow students. His family has money and he's good-looking, and when he helps Palmer through a tricky translation in Latin class, Palmer thinks he's found a friend who can actually protect him.
He's found much more than that, of course, and Redmond skillfully unreels this plot line. Rokeby and Palmer are regularly described in language more often used to describe lovers--an unnerving but appropriate choice for scenes such as one in which Palmer explains to his friend Nicholas Scott that he and Rokeby have "made plans" and Scott shouldn't join them.
Rokeby is all trouble, brimming with hatred of his own family and of a good chunk of the school's population. He also has a toxic moral certainty about things, in which bad people deserve whatever they get, or whatever he gives to them. And his hold on Palmer is nothing healthy: Well-adjusted people do not stake claims to friendship with assurances like Rokeby's "Keep being my friend and I'll never hate you."
Palmer, however, seems too needy for security to mind much at the start, even as Rokeby maneuvers him out of his old friendships and initiates him into his own hobby, conducting seances with a Ouija board. Soon after, bad things start happening to other students, while teachers and administrators begin to get anonymous phone calls and letters dredging up secrets that they'd rather keep buried.
This is some of the best--and worst--writing in the book. Maybe I've watched too many bad horror movies and read too many lame thrillers, but the chosen implement of evil seemed a little cliched. And Redmond's foreshadowing of doom is excessively frequent; the Rokeby Is Bad News button gets worn down from being pushed so often.
When Redmond shifts his attention to ordinary people, however, "Something Dangerous" comes disturbingly alive. He has a way of making individuals seem both more human and more vile as new levels of detail are unearthed. Even his villains manage to become more understandable, vulnerable and complex as the book marches on. The bully who savagely but cunningly beat Palmer, leaving his face unscarred, turns out to be equally capable of fear, and ultimately insanity, when alone in the dark; the hateful Latin teacher is seen to be dragged down by his own mistakes, mistakes that have handcuffed him to a steadily bleaker future.
As the skeletons are liberated from their closets by Rokeby, things go from worse to worst, the death toll climbs and Palmer must face down Rokeby alone. The story ends like a Greek tragedy--but without any real catharsis, just bickering survivors and baffled police investigators. This is good stuff, an impressive debut for this lawyer-turned-author. But I suspect that Redmond's alma mater will not be calling attention to it any time soon.
Rob Pegoraro, who edits The Post's Fast Forward section.