A creepy legend, the disappearance of a young mother and a teenage girl acquitted of murder… think that sounds like a recipe for a brilliant summer thriller? You’re right. With The Tall Man, Phoebe Locke (otherwise known as author Nicci Cloke) has crafted a dark and eerie suspense story that plays on all our childhood fears of creepy urban legends. Yet what makes this book so spine-chilling is the real-life psychological scares that are, in many ways, just as terrifying as a tangible monster.
Sadie Banner is the young mother who disappears, abandoning her newborn baby, Amber, and leaving her husband, Miles, to raise her on his own. Sadie has seemingly valid reasons for leaving though; she believes she’s cursed and is drawing the Tall Man away from her vulnerable child. In essence, she’s protecting Amber and Miles from the monster she sees lurking in the shadows, from the child covered in blood that stands by his side, and – more importantly – from herself.
Sixteen years later, Sadie returns to her family, struggling to integrate herself back into their lives. Amber and Miles have become a tight unit of two and whilst Miles never moved on after Sadie, always holding on to the hope that she would return to him, Amber struggles to identify with her mother, who’s more like a stranger. Sadie feels that chasm acutely and the more she tries to pretend everything is normal, the more she senses that old evil sliding into the shadows; watching, waiting.
Jumping ahead two years, Amber has just been acquitted of murder and is embarking on a media tour in LA with a documentary film crew following her every move. She’s been coined the ‘ice princess’ for her aloofness and chilly attitude, and the filmmakers won’t stop until they break through the frost and find the real Amber Banner underneath, for good or bad, guilty or innocent. It’s clear Amber isn’t the same teenager she was when her mother reappeared but we don’t know what exactly caused that change, or who she killed.
“This story is not one of tabloid gore and shock; it is one of grief and guilt and the terrible secrets which nestled for years at the heart of not one but two families. It is about the legacy of a dreadful legend, a story that begins and ends in the darkest woods.”
Told through multiple perspectives and timelines, the story switches between 1999, 2016 and 2018, giving readers myriad different stances from which to view characters and events, past and present. Through all these viewpoints, the threat of the Tall Man feels inherently real (honestly, I was a little fearful of peering at shadows and dark corners too closely when reading) but Locke poses the question of whether it’s only real to Sadie. Is it a figment of her imagination that followed her from childhood, or a manifestation of some deeply imbedded guilt, or some kind of psychosis that was never addressed?
Of course, it could actually be a real monster lurking in the shadows and Locke builds a wonderfully disturbing picture of this figure that preys on young girls and promises to make them special if they offer him something in return. Locke draws inspiration from the Slender Man and the panic that arose when the cultish urban legend was linked to a string of violent real life events. Specific to this story is a near-fatal act that saw two twelve-year-old girls from Wisconsin lure a classmate into the woods and try to murder her in a bid to win the fictional creature’s approval. Locke presents her own version of obsession, murder and psychosis but it’s no less terrifyingly because it’s fiction.
The Tall Man is the fictional equivalent of a gripping true-crime documentary, an unnerving and cleverly crafted psychological suspense book that will make you fearful of what lurks in the darkness – both in real life and in people’s minds.
The Tall Man was published by Wildfire on 14 June 2018