“Where They Wait” by Scott Carson; Atria/Emily Bestler Books (400 pages, $27)
You do not want to read this book on your phone.
After you read it, you might not even want to turn on your phone.
But can you really turn it off?
“Where They Wait” is the second shocking horror novel from Scott Carson, after his frightening 2020 ghost story “The Chill.”
Both books boast polish and craft that suggest a more experienced author, which makes sense — Scott Carson is a pen name for award-winning crime fiction writer Michael Koryta. As Koryta, he’s published 16 mysteries and thrillers, including “Those Who Wish Me Dead,” which was made into a film, starring Angelina Jolie, that was released this year.
A number of Koryta’s novels, such as “So Cold the River” and the Florida-set “The Cypress House,” have had supernatural elements. But in the Carson books, he’s jumping into the deep end of the horror genre.
The first thing his new book’s narrator, Nick Bishop, tells us is: “I was never a dreamer.” He’s not talking about his attitude toward life; he’s being literal — he does not dream, never has. For him, sleep is “blackness,” and that’s fine. As a hard-charging newspaper reporter who has, among other things, been embedded with U.S. troops in Afghanistan, he has enough waking nightmares.
Koryta, who has been on the faculty of Eckerd College’s Writers in Paradise program and lived in St. Petersburg for several years, starts Nick’s story in Tampa, where’s he’s just been laid off by the newspaper he works for.
With some free time and nothing to do but job hunt, Nick heads north to the fictional small town of Hammel, Maine. He lived there for several years while he was in high school and college, as his mother, Alice Bishop, taught on the faculty of Hammel College, “one of those tony New England liberal arts schools that have been around long enough to justify the tuition rate with a straight face.”
They moved there after Nick’s father died in a car accident, hitting a patch of black ice while rushing to the airport.
Alice Bishop is still in Hammel. Once “one of the nation’s preeminent scholars in the field of memory research,” she suffered a stroke while hiking alone, fell off the trail and wasn’t discovered for hours. Now she’s in an assisted living center, cheerfully watching the birds in the garden but having little to say beyond “Grackles.”
Nick wants to spend some time with her, and there’s another enticement: One of his old college pals, Pat Ryan, has stayed on to work in PR for the school and offers Nick a freelance gig writing a profile of a Hammel alumnus who is about to release a hot new app. It will be a puff piece, but the pay is good. Also, Nick’s family still owns Rosewater, a lakefront cabin near the town, where he can stay while he sorts out his life.
He arrives at Rosewater in the evening, just in time to have a beer, listen to the loons call and have an exchange with the longtime, cranky next-door neighbor, Bob Beauchamp. Nick barely has time to make his bed before he gets a perky text from “Renee at Clarity Inc.” confirming that he’ll be coming to talk to the alumnus the next morning.
Nick had planned to check in with Pat and with his mother, then start work on the story in a couple of days, but he agrees, despite being put off by the security measures outlined in the text: no recorder, no phone.
The surprises start when he arrives at the old Hefron Mill, which he remembers as one of those crumbling industrial hulks found in every other New England town. It’s been transformed into Clarity’s sleek, landscaped office complex, and Nick wonders where the money came from, given that the company’s mindfulness app hasn’t even been released.
“A reporter with a question is a happy human,” Nick tells us, and there are more questions to come. The Renee who sent the text turns out to be Renee Holland, “my first real friend in Hammel.” He had a teenage crush, she was brainy and two years older, but they had bonded over music and running.
They’ve fallen out of touch, so he’s delighted to see her. She’s warm (except for confiscating his phone and putting it in a lockbox), but hustles him upstairs to meet the boss. Bryce Lermond “wore faded jeans and a fleece vest over a long-sleeved T-shirt, as if he’d been torn between hiking the Appalachian Trail and creating a tech start-up.”
Nick’s interview with him goes well until Bryce interrupts him.
“You don’t buy it, do you?” he says, noting Nick’s skepticism about the app. As the conversation grows more tense, Nick gets curious: Why does Bryce so want him to be a believer? But somehow, by the time he leaves, he’s agreed to be a beta tester for the app — even though he’s uniquely unqualified, because the app’s purpose is to shape the user’s dreams.
What makes Clarity different from other mindfulness apps, Bryce explains, is its “sleep songs,” which act on the brain’s response to story and song. As Nick walks out of the Clarity building, he looks at the icon for the app, already installed on his phone, “the black-and-red C undulating.” And his nose starts to bleed.
Things will get so much worse. Nick will begin to dream, dreams full of rain-soaked, pleading ghosts and crashing waves. In the waking world, secrets will creep out, some about people he loves. And he’ll face the terrifying question of whether cutting-edge technology can become a conduit for ancient evil.
Do you ever watch horror films and shout at the screen, “Don’t go in there!” “Where They Wait” had me wanting to shout at Nick, “Throw away that phone!” But we never do, do we?