by Richie Tankersley Cusick
The Locker is everything I want from a pulpy teen horror novel. It has a creepy atmosphere, a solid cast of characters, and a tightly executed plot. The gloomy feel of early spring in the deep woods of rural Missouri really permeated through from the first page. Even though it wasn’t the most original concept, it was well constructed and rich in its details. It had some excellent scary moments with Marlee’s visions and it had some truly gruesome deaths. I appreciated the supportive relationship between Marlee and her brother Dobkin, and I liked the fact that the story didn’t twist the way that I expected it to. It’s always a bit of a bummer when I figure out the twist in the first half of the book, and I was pleasantly surprised that I got it wrong. The Locker was the first Richie Tankersley Cusick book I’ve read, and I’m really glad I added more of her stuff to my list.
Observations & Spoilers:
The Locker follows the orphaned teenager Marlee who moves around the country with her little brother Dobkin and their Aunt Celia. Their latest move has taken them to rural Missouri, a place that doesn’t get a lot of new students from out of town. On her first day, Marlee is assigned a locker, and upon opening it she is knocked unconscious by what she describes as a “smell.” Her new friends Noreen and Tyler comfort her and explain that the locker used to belong to Sue Ellen, a girl who went missing the year before. The incident forces Marlee to grapple with the psychic abilities that she has been desperately trying to ignore. Cue the meme that works in almost every single one of these reviews:
Marlee’s little brother Dobkin is an old soul. He doesn’t think, talk, or act like your typical five-year-old. I appreciated how he was almost creepy in his adultlike presence but still had enough quirks to remind us of his true age. Dobkin remembers the night his and Marlee’s parents died in a car wreck, and how Marlee knew they were dead hours before the police delivered the news. Dobkin won’t let Marlee off the hook when she doesn’t want to talk about the new visions she’s been seeing. He presses her to find out more about Sue Ellen in hopes that they can maybe figure out what happened to her. Marlee just wants to fit in with her new friends, and for all the psychic BS to just stop.
Marlee gets pushed down a ravine by an invisible set of hands when she’s out at Tyler’s summer house. She catches a glimpse of a corpse in the mirror that Dobkin made for her locker. She sees Sue Ellen standing in the middle of the road when she and Dobkin are catching a ride home from Jimmy Frank, the sheriff’s son. Jimmy Frank confesses to having psychic visions, too. She finds out that Noreen didn’t like Sue Ellen very much, and that Tyler had been dating her at the time when she disappeared. All signs start pointing to Tyler as the culprit.
Everything comes to a head the night before Tyler’s big party. After spending the night cleaning up his cabin with Noreen, Jimmy Frank, and Dobkin, the kids head home to rest. Tyler gets a flat tire on the drive back, and Marlee gets a clear vision of Sue Ellen’s body stuffed inside the trunk. She flees from Tyler into the woods. Tyle explains that Noreen had been borrowing his car the weekend Sue Ellen disappeared. He had been out of town. When Noreen, Jimmy Frank, and Dobkin catch up to them, Marlee and Tyler have started piecing together what really happened. Noreen swears it was just an accident!
Noreen didn’t mean to kill Sue Ellen when she pushed her. But Sue Ellen hit her head. Jimmy Frank promised to take care of the body so no one would ever find it. Only Sue Ellen wasn’t dead; Noreen hadn’t killed her. Jimmy Frank had buried her alive. And now to keep the secret from getting out, Jimmy Frank is prepared to kill again. The day is saved when Noreen shoots Jimmy Frank at point-blank range. Sue Ellen’s body is found buried in an old well on Jimmy’s property. Marlee and Tyler start dating, and all is well in the world. If the killer turned out to be Tyler I would have been annoyed, but thankfully it was just artful misdirection. So kudos to the author for that.
Like I said before, The Locker wasn’t the most original concept. It brought to mind the movies A Stir of Echoes and What Lies Beneath. My point is that a story doesn’t need to be wildly original to still be good and thoroughly enjoyable. The murder of Sue Ellen was frighteningly plausible. Teenagers making bad decisions in stressful and traumatic situations? Highly relatable. The sheriff’s son turning out to be a piece of shit using his father’s badge as a shield to get away with things no one else could? Sounds like most places. The Locker really hit all the creepy notes I look for in a horror story, and had some great characters to boot. At the end of the day, what more can you ask for?
For the scoring of each book, I decided to rate them based on five criteria worth 2 points each. I then split that in two to give it a rating out of 5 stars. Those criteria are Concept (the overall idea), Execution (the mechanics of storytelling), Character (the protagonists, antagonists, and villains), Scare Factor (from a childhood standpoint), and Originality (subversion and reliance on genre tropes).
The concept was solid and built around believable characters. Even if it felt familiar, that wasn’t a bad thing.
The plotting and pacing were great. It legitimately kept me guessing, which was a pleasant surprise. Nothing to complain about here.
The characters were easily the strongest part of the story. From Marlee and Dobkin on down to Noreen and Jimmy Frank, there was a great set of characters with competing motives and distinct personalities.
Scare Factor: 2/2
The creepy atmosphere was A+. Right from the first chapter, the whole book felt muddy and murky, like something was simmering just beneath the surface. There were plenty of good scares, and the deaths turned out to be especially gruesome.
I’ve seen this movie before (but I still like it).
Don’t miss the next post in the Pulp Horror blog series:
Caroline B. Cooney’s Wanted