I was surprised that Screams You Hear by James Morris was ranked as #7 in the genre Teen & Young Adult > Horror on the Amazon Kindle website. On the one hand, I suspected as much as I began to read the unusual setting of the novel. It is set on Hemlock Island, population 600, and is told from the perspective of Ruthie Stroud, a teenager. On the other hand, the graphic depictions of horror (but no sex) would get a huge “Censor” stamp from many parents. This may illustrate a point that many parents do not read, at least not enough to monitor what their children read.
Going straight to the graphic horror descriptions, the book opens with Ruthie Stroud in a burn ward coming to consciousness and wondering about her appearance, among other things. The entire novel will play out as a story Ruthie tells Detective Perez of the Washington State Police. Lots of people, almost the entire population of Hemlock Island are dead. Most were killed in horribly violent and graphically described situations. Most of the ones that survived killings or murders were burned alive in the fire that Ruthie barely escaped. Reader imagination can run wild here as to the appearance of the victims. For me, a death by fire is almost as bad as it gets. The other part, maybe worse, is surviving death by fire followed by years of disfigurement while attempting rehabilitation. The fiery deaths are the least of the graphically described deaths in this novel.
An island of 600 cannot be much of an exciting place to live. Ruthie doesn’t think so and continually seeks a sign or an event that will signal her real life is beginning, one that will probably take place off the island. She has an older brother who she wouldn’t mind being closer to, but he has a girlfriend, Sasha. Dad had left the family, there was a divorce because mom was having an affair, evidence of which was witnessed by Ruthie. She missed Dad and would have preferred to live with him. Ruthie had a friend, Max, who was as much a social outcast as Ruthie. It was not that Ruthie and Max were shunned by others, they just had no common interest with most students. The two were sad about their lives; Ruthie because of her parent’s divorce which she did not feel responsible for, and Max because of the death of his younger brother, which Max felt guilty about. Ruthie felt bad about the loss of her best friend, Sasha, an event that occurred soon after Sasha became the girlfriend of brother Theo. There is a lot of familial negativity here.
And then the killings begin. First, the Solomon family, a family which lived off the land with no modern technological aid, like electricity, was killed in its entirety. Then a former neighbor of Ruthie’s had two wards disappear. Ruthie noticed the woman had blood on her face and clothes and did not want to answer Ruthie’s questions. Then Ruthie witnessed the sheriff shoot a person in the head for no apparent reason. A common theme seemed to be developing. Adults were killing children. Why would this be? Ruthie had a theory. There had been an oil spill. The company responsible cleaned it with a new type of unproven cleanser that introduced infectious material into the water surrounding Hemlock Island. Somehow, it only affected adults. Bad news for children.
Character development in this novel focuses on the teenage angst that can result from growing up in either isolation or in an area where absolutely everybody knows everybody else. There can be no secrets in such a stifling environment, every family flaw or anomaly will be known by the entire populace. Ruthie’s character is extremely well developed to illustrate this. Max, the hesitant might-be boyfriend is also well developed. Most adult characters are placeholders, present only to move the adolescent characters along. This does not distract from the story.
Morris uses beautiful, detailed language to describe physical settings, such as the forest and the ocean. There is literally a cliff-hanger scene that is very well done. I found this a very entertaining read but only gave it four Amazon stars because of the graphic violence. It is rare that I read a YA novel that I do not want my son to read. And then there is the ending. Quite a shock. If you like to be shocked, read this one.